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How Little the Future is Focused on the Future August 30, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, change, technology, transformation.
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“This new generation does not waste time speculating about the future.  Its attitude seems to be: Who needs the future? The present is plenty interesting on its own.”

The most striking thing about the best technology writing of 2009 is how little of it focuses on the future.

So opens the introduction of The Best Technology Writing 2009, as in the past made up of short articles from periodicals, blogs, newspapers. And how refreshing to discover a technology reader that continually returns us – neither to the foreseeable future nor the recent past – but to the eternal now. Readers and writers both were invited by the Yale University Press to nominate pieces, and even self-nominations are encouraged, with a preference for “profiles, policy, and Big Think pieces including blog posts, features, and investigative reporting; human interest, humor, business and gadgetry.”

In other words, the usual geeky fair with the ideal submissions being engagingly written for a mass audience, no longer than 5,000 words and published in 2008 (explaining how the 2009 collection – though with an official publishing date in October, can be had in August.)

Guest edited (given their quality it would be more accurate to say curated collection of essays) by Steven Johnson author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, it turns out that the criteria for inclusion in the collection is as creative and open-sourced as the content within.

Some of Johnson’s favorite passages in this collection “have this introspective quality: the mind examining its own strange adaption to a world that has been transformed by information technology.”

With our preoccupation with all things online we may have inadvertently missed a remarkable streak of emotive writing when learning of the previous collections: last year’s The Best of Technology Writing 2008, Sherry Turkle, Director, MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and author of my current favorite read Simulation and Its Discontents (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life), wrote “reading this collection, one suspects he is right—it sparkles with beautifully written narratives not only about what technology can do for us but what it does to us as people, to our ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationships, and how we envisage our world.” The human element in this collection looms large.

There has been much written in the past about “High Tech, High Touch,” the balancing and rebalancing of the cool innovations of technology with the all-too-human interface. The essays selected for The Best Technology Writing 2009 take “touch” to another plane altogether when you consider how in touch they are with our feelings about our current – and human – condition.

The Best of Technology Writing 2007 also touched on the human element (social networking, “crowdsourcing” and the online habits of urban moms, amongst others) and the changes that connected computers have brought to this aspect of human behavior.

The current collection contains essays by Nicholas Carr [worrying that Google is making us stupid,] Dana Goodyear [heartbreakingly chronicling the renaissance of the cell phone novel,] Andrew Sullivan [on why he blogs,] Dalton Conley [on how the wealthy overwork in the information age,] and a particularly incisive essay by Clay Shirky marveling at the “cognitive surplus” unleashed by the decline of the TV sitcom, resulting in Wikipedia and perhaps the saving of the earth, amongst many others.

So why should architects of all stripes bother with this annual collection of well-wrought wisdom? For many reasons – not the least of which being that architects – whether building or software – can get pretty wrapped-up in the latest technology and software only to be reminded that it is people that count. People – who use the buildings or programs, people who we are designing for. A simple message perhaps – but one we need reminding of each day as we sit before the monitor and design.

Something that says a great deal about technology today is that I discovered the book at my local bookstore and shamelessly ordered it from Amazon at 7:30PM that weekday evening only for it to arrive – free of charge – at 3PM the next afternoon. That’s technology for you – but also excellent customer service. The “get it in two-day” delivery option under-promised and over-performed – what any self-respecting service provider (including architect) would strive to do. Needless to say, with an official release date still months away, let it be acknowledged that this is the book’s first review.

As Johnson concludes in his introduction, “sometimes, when the future finally arrives, the most surprising thing you discover is that things aren’t that different after all.” Bless this realization.


Returning Home to What we Are August 18, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in change, optimism, possibility, questions, the economy, transformation.
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We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.                                                             T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Amongst several other projects, in the past year as an architect I have worked on the design of a 180 story super-tall high rise and designed a mile long retail spine. It’s easy to understand with projects such as these how architects can get it in their minds that what they do has cosmic importance and is on some level even heroic.

Many of these largest projects were designed and destined for countries expanding at a fast clip, often found abroad. We would find ourselves setting off for distant lands to compete and conquer and reap our rewards by garnering yet another commission.

We’ve been on many voyages – professional, family, artistic – all involving great effort and many sacrifices on our part. And on the part of others.

The past several years has led us on a journey to many foreign – and some not so foreign – destinations and here we find ourselves, back where we started.

All of that was – as we know too well – a lifetime ago. Here we are today, summer winding down, sailing home. Today we find ourselves on the most unusual destination of all: home, returning to the place where we started. If anything, the economic headwinds have brought each of us back into our own. Reintroduced us to ourselves as though we had been away from ourselves and are only now returning and getting reacquainted.

Many architects with our long hours and near obsession with our craft and calling, are using this newfound land of time to readjust and reprioritize. The Odyssey is over – it is time to return home.

Or so writes Norman Fischer in his profoundly beautiful Sailing Home: Using Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls.  Comparing Odysseus’s journey to our own, Fischer asserts that this book “will help you appreciate the shape and feeling for the journey, will give you the reflections to keep you company and perhaps also steady your step as you walk forward into the darkness.” For those trying to make their way back from your own 10-years wars with our own personal Troys in these challenging times, it is a book I cannot recommend enough. As much as any book that has come before, because it is inspired by and based on a living classic that has been with us for thousands of years, the book is about you and your life, right now.

So why do I recommend this book to architects? For the very reason that architects (of all stripes) are strivers, journeymen and women, fighting daily battles inside and outside the office to overcome divine and earthly obstacles, in search of a promised (but little seen) heroism. Odysseus and his wanderings are certainly relevant to architect’s own heroic journey – wherever you find yourself on your own. The book will help you to yield personal revelations, make sense of your past journeys, elucidate their outcomes and show you the way to greater purpose and meaning in your own life.

Additionally, one of the books messages will stand out for many architects: namely, to resist novelty and instead replace it with repetition (practice) which will lead in time to Mastery. Certainly this is a welcome message after so many years of one-upmanship of taller, bigger, longer. Likewise, Fischer advises that we stop criticizing the state of things and instead accept “all that is  messy, inexact, troublesome and uncontrollable in human life.” A relief for the perfectionists in us all in these all-too messy times.

So where does he suggest we go from here? As though speaking directly to the architect in all of us, Fischer surmises “Perhaps we are living in a post-heroic age. Maybe the human race, so full of promise, bright ideas, and hubris, is finally weary of the toxic idealisms and thoughtless excesses of power that has been so destructive and so exhausting for so long. We have seen and done so much, and it has left us dazed and confused. Maybe, like Odysseus, we are finally ready simply to return home to what we are, to our beauty and strength as well as our limitations…”

Could this be enough?

Regaining a Sense of Self August 9, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, architect, change, identity, the economy, transformation.
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Today’s New York Times has a front page story on the science of identity that has me thinking about how easy it is to lose a sense of yourself at this time – in summer but also in history. When it comes to identity the media has been focused almost exclusively on identity theft and much less so on the subject of our social identity – the roles we play and how we see ourselves in relation to others. In the midst of August – especially this particular August – with a recession reversing gears and uncertain signs of recovery ahead, it is easy to consider the possibility of an identity crisis.


Summer months in particular often relieve us of the social roles that we play: we shed our work clothes as we do our social identity or cultural identity. Just think of Congress or the Supreme Court justices on summer recess, donning swimsuits in lieu of robes and dress suits. Summer challenges our social and cultural identities – our professional identities – at a time when we are already feeling the stress and strain of reduced hours – or relief altogether of our workday duties.


As for myself, I have been spending most of my waking hours this summer – when not at the office – writing my book, “BIM and Integrated Design” (Wiley, 2011) and besides the isolated sustainable hotel design or infrequent master plan, not designing as much as I might. An architect is someone who designs buildings, right? Is an architect an architect when they are writing? Or going to the movies?


Aspiring Architect


It seems that even in the media architects are in a perpetual state of becoming. A recent article noted “When screenwriters give a hero a career, it’s often architecture. Think Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver and Adam Sandler in Click. When Matt Dillon attempts to impress Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary, he pretends to be an architect.” More recently we’ve seen several trailers for upcoming films with an architect in the lead role, not to mention the current hit in theaters, “(500) Days of Summer,” where Tom is an aspiring architect with a day job writing copy for greeting cards. “The public perceives architecture as a career for creative, free spirits who nonetheless earn good money while designing cool new buildings,” and yet the article concludes that “there’s a Grand Canyon of difference between the screen and reality.” This gulf is the very same one we ourselves feel – between architects portrayed on screen and the architects we are. Take that even further – architects we aren’t when we’re on vacation, on furlough or not practicing due to unemployment or by choice.


By the time they graduate from college, architects should be well-prepared for the identity challenges of multiple role-playing. The AIA’s Richard Hobbs believes that as many as 50 percent of the nation’s architectural graduates now work, or soon will, outside the profession. Consider this: Half of your classmates are doing something else entirely. It’s no wonder that for the 50% that stick with it and practice architecture within the profession must from time to time regain a sense of who they are – in terms of what they do. So to answer the question “When is an architect not an architect?” the best answer is probably one that finds the architect isolated from colleagues, not attending conferences and social gatherings, working alone or not working at all; going after work that doesn’t match their profile and tap into their core competencies; with each passing day living without the small but vital reminders – a coworker passing along an image found online, seeing a building that touches you somewhere deep down, an article that connects with you on some level that you can identify with – of who we are and why we do what we do. That is when an architect is least of all an architect. It is then that you know that you need to return – as so many are returning right now to school or to work – in order to regain a sense of self so that we might help others – through the work we do and the buildings we design and build – do the same for themselves. What are you doing right now to regain and strengthen your sense of self?