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On “Next” (Fall 2013)

Ann Sussman’s article on the silver tsunami (“When I’m 84”) was interesting to read because it raised many issues no one wants to face. As the clock ticks by, we refuse to divulge our age when asked, color our gray ever more frequently, and moisturize the wrinkles away with abandonment.

In New York, we pride ourselves on how we are a NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community). Everything can be delivered. Services abound. Buses kneel. Since Local Law 58 was first passed, co-ops and condos are required to be made accessible. Assisted-living facilities are so artfully blended into the cityscape that most residents seem surprised they exist here.

Bostonians have always impressed us as particularly hardy and frugal souls, preferring personal warming during the cold months instead of the 90-degree blasts of steam that keep us in camisoles all winter long. As retirement looms, many seem to be seriously contemplating aging in place.

When clients talk about renovations, fancy kitchens usually trump elevators. No one makes an existing house accessible until they have a health crisis and have to. But priorities change. Ten years ago, sustainability was barely on our radar screens and storm surge was hypothetical. Now it’s likely that we will rethink what it means to age in place and will come up with some innovative solutions.

Abby Suckle FAIA
President, cultureNOW
New York City

Sussman lays out a compelling case for a new way of thinking about the built environment. US Census figures predict the over-65 population doubling by 2060, and the over-85 tripling. How are we as a profession preparing?

The article focuses on single-family homes, and the universal design movement is doing a great service by promoting one-level living with adaptable features that adjust to changing mobility needs. Realtors are beginning to understand that some fluency with access issues broadens their marketability. Architects likewise need to be deft at navigating the territory of inclusive design — and persuasive at selling this to clients.

Sussman notes a nice symbiosis between environmental and social sustainability. For aging eyes that need more light and for the hard of hearing who rely on visual communication, good lighting is essential. Fortunately, passive solar principles such as controlled and ample daylighting, combined with new energy-conserving electrical fixtures and appliances, have universal appeal.

Lighting is just the tip of the iceberg. Designers need to rethink how layout, materials, details, and finishes contribute to environmental visibility, in terms of both problems and solutions. How can we make a kitchen for a low-vision individual? What is a closet like for someone who’s blind? Do ubiquitous touch-screen controls make any sense?

Sussman challenges architects to envision alternatives to the typical American three- or four-bedroom single-family house and mentions cottage communities, modular granny flats, and multigenerational homes. Add cohousing and shared housing to the list. While these are exciting new residential prototypes, they do not relieve architects of responsibility for creating places where people with a variety of conditions can thrive.

I take issue with the comment that “an architect can go from ignorance to effective design for seniors without tremendous effort.” If this were true, all new homes and all commercial and institutional buildings would be fully accessible, and access consultants would be out of work. Effective design for an aging population requires programming skill, empathy, resourcefulness, and creativity.

In The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities, I survey 25 houses around the country, designed by architects for and with homeowners living with disabilities. The composite picture that emerges represents a new way of thinking about the American home. It also offers a road map for navigating a broad range of accessibility issues. Guidance and inspiration don’t come from code compliance but from the living laboratories of people’s homes and the wisdom of creative designers.

Deborah Pierce AIA
Principal, Pierce Lamb Architects
Newton, Massachusetts

Robert Trumbour’s article “Make the Most of It reflects a subtle shift in placemaking that we observed during the selection process for the 2013 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence. Among the 90 entries for our national design award, we noted an increasing number of projects reflecting characteristics of the “maker” movement: places made possible by the hands-on efforts of architects, artists, and other community members to make things — art, food, public spaces, and structures — that bring people together and improve their lives.

Three of our 2013 winners illustrate this approach: Inspiration Kitchens–Garfield Park in Chicago, an 85-seat restaurant that provides affordable, healthy meals cooked by people in workforce training; the Steel Yard in Providence, Rhode Island, a 3½-acre steel facility repurposed into an industrial arts campus by two artists; and Congo Street Initiative in Dallas, six houses on a one-block-long street constructed/reconstructed by architecture students, homeowners, and community volunteers.

These projects illustrate the potential of modest, small-scale projects led by visionary “makers” to effect broader change in our communities.

While this trend is hardly new — think Auburn University’s Rural Studio or Project Row Houses in Houston — it’s refreshing to witness the energy, enthusiasm, and hope reflected in these efforts and an emerging generation of practitioners.

Anne-Marie Lubenau AIA
Director, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Your “At Issue” series of articles brought to mind a recent conversation I had with a group of practicing architects at a small firms committee meeting at the BSA. As we discussed the importance of the role of design and the architect’s impact on a project, the meeting devolved into a cathartic session where everyone expressed their frustrations. Some scoffed that the public was not educated enough to appreciate design, so in their opinion, the education of the public would resolve this problem. Whether true or false, this is a futile argument. While we battle an old war between architects and clients, the profession is evolving.

As Henry Beer mentioned in his article, “Venturing into the next realm,” the unanticipated will have a profound impact on the future of the profession. The unknown — the constant reinvention and revitalization of design — is what propels buildings, products, and the world forward. Designers need to continue asking “What If?” and breaking the rules. What is perceived as important and vital must change because the world is changing. I look forward to being a part of that change.

Nicole Ash
Intern, Yang Architects
Cambridge, Massachusetts

While agreeing with the general predictive statements in Dave Giancarli’s vision of the future in “Generation Why Not,” we differ in the prescriptive desire for architecture to solve “the problem.” The idea that architecture should assume the solution to problems yet unrealized is dangerous territory indeed, if not an open invitation for the profession to repeat those failures.

Seeing the profession this way is to experience the world as a set of problems waiting for the designer’s singular resolution. This kind of architectural absolutism perpetuates the mindset our generation would seemingly hope to avoid. Boston itself is perhaps the best example of this “top-down” attitude; the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s infamous erasure of the West End stands as perhaps the best example.

Architecture in the absolute denies the richness and diversity of voices already found within the landscapes we as young architects would seek to enhance. Social media platforms and crowdsourcing have proven themselves remarkably potent in their ability to self-critically outline and address the needs of the many while working toward an agreed-upon solution. This generation’s successful mitigation of the future will depend on our ability to translate these generational ideals into real and tangible new approaches to the practice of architecture.

Aaron Tetzlaff
BArch candidate

Ethan Zinkowski
BDS in Historic Preservation candidate
Boston Architectural College

What do I think? I think those images of Felice Varini’s work are absolutely breathtaking! More! Please.

Peter Coxe, AIA Emeritus
Ketchum, Idaho

Correction: In the “Next” issue, an item in “Covering the Issues” misattributed the quote about entering Penn Station “like a rat;” it should have been credited to Vincent Scully.