Let’s face it. The things many in the design community care about — equity, diversity, sustainability, expertise — are endangered by a new administration in Washington that is hostile to all of those values. The comfortable, rational order has been upended: programs threatened, critics silenced, frankly unqualified neophytes installed in critical agencies; I needn’t go on.
Rather than wallow in the winter of our discontent, this issue of ArchitectureBoston imagines a Design Spring. Architects are natural-born problem solvers, and in the current era, those skills will be called upon as never before. This is exactly the time to promote social betterment through design: to renew commitments to affordable housing, to public and civic spaces, to sustainable landscapes and structures. “Design brings form to ideas,” writes Cooper Hewitt curator Cynthia E. Smith in the lead article, Tonics and Provocations. “Right now it is more critical than ever that what we value as a society is expressed in what we create.”
The articles in this issue celebrate moments of discovery, innovation, and progress across centuries. They are an inspiration and a model, even as official Washington threatens progress on a host of issues, from climate change to public education. Nothing is achieved by paralysis and despair. John Peterson, curator of the Loeb fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, echoed this sentiment just after the election when he said it is possible, even amid sadness and anxiety, “to find solace in doing.”
This magazine is full of things that can be done: Designers can work locally in their own communities to reclaim abandoned properties, make rain gardens or parklets, build housing for refugees or homeless families, be more strategic with pro bono work, experiment on a small scale. They can work to dignify a public realm that has long been demeaned: creating uplifted civic and cultural spaces that bring society together across divides.
Designers can double down on solutions to climate change. It may be harder to achieve the carbon-neutral goals of the profession’s 2030 Challenge without the prod of government regulations, but architects hardly know their own power when it comes to moving the needle on sustainability. Russell Perry FAIA shows the influence the design community already is having on the development of safe alternatives to hazardous building materials; the same can be said for energy systems and resilient landscapes.
Architecture’s focus on evidence-based design is a bulwark against another troubling trend — the disdain for verifiable facts. The popular culture today devalues professional expertise as “elitist,” yet independent, accountable research is a hallmark of excellent design, and its importance goes far beyond the construction of healthcare facilities, where the principle has its roots.
An action need not be explicitly focused on public policy to have a public impact. In an interview, Peterson described the power of choice: “It requires a little ambitious thinking, but every project can have an implied social agenda,” he said. Even designing a fancy new kitchen can be done mindfully by eschewing toxic materials, using natural light, and thinking hard about the cultural meaning of the kitchen as the locus of connection, nourishment, and care.
Among the many protest signs at the women’s march in January was one with a particularly inspiring message. “Trying times are times for trying,” it read. These times call upon the talents of architects to think not just outside boxes but around corners: to imagine, sketch, and then build the society we want to see. This is the joy of creation. No power can overcome it. ■