This is an excerpt from American Dreamers, a book and website bringing together optimists, mavericks and mad inventors who believe we can create a better world. Here, American Dreamers creators, Sharp Stuff, spoke with Nader Tehrani, the head of the Department of Architecture at MIT.
American Dreamers: What is the current state of design?
Nader Tehrani: One of the most radical things that has happened is the Internet. It has taken a discipline that had a rarified and highly-tuned knowledge base and made it accessible to a much vaster population. The education that may have once only been accessible to people at Princeton, Harvard, and MIT is now something that is affordable and accessible to people in all corners of the world, from Chile to Iran to China. Design is more accessible. Design becomes more democratic. Design can be afforded, implemented, and intuited by much larger populations.
We have also seen a shift in production. If modernism was defined by mass production, digital fabrication affords mass customization. The kinds of forms, construction protocols and configurations that are possible geometrically and affordably are the result of what computing has been able to render. These two things, together, are changing the landscape altogether. Both the intellectual landscape as well as the physical landscape.
AD: How do we build for the future?
Tehrani: There are some things that have already changed and I don’t think the discipline has caught up with them. In the old days we used to think of cities as organisms that evolved over decades or centuries. Now, if you look at places like Shenzhen, among other Chinese cities that have evolved, they sprouted up out of a village and gained millions in population over twenty years. This is unprecedented and there are few techniques and urban design protocols that have prepared neither the academy or profession for that. This is a work in progress.
At another level, the kind of research being done at MIT is formidable. For instance, in our course, How to Make (Almost) Anything, in which digital fabrication and interactive technologies are being taught, we create a more responsive environment. You do not just exist in space. Architecture is another protagonist. There is a call and response in relation to your environment. At the most mundane level, heating is not just something you turn on and off, it knows when to turn on and off in relation to your body’s presence.
In material sciences we are investigating materials that at the molecular level—the nano level—are changing in their behavior. For example, the gradient by which you can begin to manipulate structural systems will optimize them, make them more efficient, save money, and be more sustainable. These are just a few examples in which you get to control the parameters of the elements that go into design. Think about how many materials and resources are wasted per building. If you look at the major waste of resources in the world, the construction industry eats up a good portion of that. The kind of research that we do at the molecular level of materials can contribute a great deal to that change.
AD: If you had one area to focus on, and in so doing change the world, what would it be? What is your progressive soapbox?
Tehrani: That is a big question. I will speak to it from the perspective of what I do on a daily basis. There is no limit to design and there is no limit to innovation. The scales of design have an impact on society at every level whether you are designing silverware, a chair, a room, a house, an institution, or a piece of infrastructure that gets you from here to there. The way in which design culture can impact and alter the world is boundless. It seems that, beyond myself, who operates in all of these areas, we are really invested in design as a way of producing new forms of knowledge and a transformation of culture. This is how we can impact the way communities work. Design is everywhere.
And so, we need to construct patronage in ways that can take advantage of what design thinking brings to society. Design thinking is not built on linear knowledge. It is rooted in lateral thinking—making unexpected connections you would never expect—and built on the risk to fail. Design thinking is based on making the unexpected. Bringing design thinking back into the core of education is an important factor.
The integration of design into education and patronage as a central pivoting point of politics is important. Look at how public funding has been chipped away over the years. This is where design thinking can do the most for culture. Design has ways of integrating diverse ways of thinking. Architecture, for instance, is not a precise discipline. When you are an architect you have to know about engineering, environmental engineering, space planning, urbanism, material properties, and you have to know a little bit about a great range of disciplines. It is also one of the unique forms of production that has the potential of producing new forms of knowledge based on speculation, experimentation, and risk.
AD: Does design have the power to change the world or is it just a by-product?
Tehrani: Neither is right or wrong. We are programmed and led by a certain form of patronage, we learn from culture. But there are also key moments in design that produce new forms of knowledge and transform culture. No, I don’t think that design or architecture can end world hunger but the ways in which we plan cities, create transportation, and change our environment all have massive impacts on the way we use resources. They impact how we produce better environments for people to live in.
As much as everything has changed, it is amazing how much does not change. A lot of sustainable strategies that people adopt today are not only high tech but are absolutely low tech. With all of the most sophisticated solutions of how to “green up” a building, there is nothing like opening a window to circulate the air. Daylighting is the same thing. We have some of the most sophisticated lighting devices, some of which are very expensive and are very green, but that does not compete with daylighting.
There are cultural questions that need to be brought to the table and be able to operate within many paradigms. They need to operate between the traditional city, the modern city, the suburb, and the city of the future in ways that leverage smart thinking as a basis for flexibility. There are many ways to be flexible, but part of it is to not take on a monocular vision towards this or that technology.
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Shenzhen cityscape image by Shutterstock.