Op-Ed: ‘Thoughts on Naivete as Design Method’

I recommend reading this Op-Ed by Ann Lui recently posted on Archinect. I think it raises pertinent questions about the role of utopian thinking in design and design education. Particularly relevant to my own work, it describes how the mindset of architectural students trained during the recession has potentially led to projects that Lui qualifies as ‘safe’ and ‘fiscally investable’. As she writes, there seems to be a “quiet fear…[resulting] in designers trying to tread lightly.” While the caricature of the critic is to reign in the idealistic student, perhaps these roles have been reversed recently.

I’ve pasted the entire article below:

When asked about courage in architecture, Elizabeth Diller has said: “[It] comes half from being naive and also not having the cynicism to stop yourself when you have a good idea that you don’t know how to work it out.” More simply: You can’t know that it can’t be done if you’re going to do it. My partner and I recently won a Jury Citation —  a euphemism for 9th place — in a competition for bus rapid transit stations. Our project was by any measure grossly out of scale, eclipsing any imaginable budget or structural methods, and barely included any buses at all. Rather than being sited in an expanded traffic lane, our entry swooped high and far above the city. It created a counterpoint to the constant discourse on hyper-efficiency and speed. It provoked, I hope, questions about the nature of the competition as well as addressing the brief. But the night before we submitted our entry, I reviewed the FAQ and had a moment of panic.

Other entrants had asked, “frequently”, how high the bus platform curb should be. My heart sank.

What lies below is what I told myself in order to hit “send” on the competition entry.

You there. OK, you don’t know much about bus stops. You don’t know much about architecture at all — you forget which side of the insulation the vapor barrier goes on versus the waterproofing membrane. You call rafters joists and the other way around. Two years ago you had never opened Revit and hadn’t seen a CD drawing set, or really any drawing set at all. Daily, the slow crawl of gaining experience and knowledge drives you nuts. You doubt, deeply, whether it’s worth submitting a project at all to a competition wherein the other entrants are asking about curb height. You doubt this as deeply as you doubt that the gaps in your knowledge will ever be filled. (Especially, in a profession which seems to pride itself on unhesitating confidence and know-how.) But here are the reasons why you should hit “Send”.

They come down to one idea: that you can use naivete as a design method. You might also argue, that until you know more, that this is all you can do. Capitalize on your unknowing, or it might overrun you, like any other design tool left unchallenged.

First: There is a significant history of projects done in purposeful or unknowing naivete which — while many did not result in buildings — changed how the practice thought about some basic things. Like what was possible. Or what society needed or where it was going. As proposals for new worlds, these schemes literally allowed us to imagine ourselves in a new places where everything was slightly different. The wild visionaries of the 1960s and 1970s — Archigram, Superstudio, the Metabolists, the Situationists — both formed and reflected the changing decades through “plug-in” cities, endless monuments, and places formed by memory. They were preceded by centuries of critical designers, from Etienne-Louis Boullee to Futurama at the New York World’s Fair, and followed by them too. Lebbeus Woods proposed an infinite, continuously growing tower for the World Trade memorial. The project continues to provoke questions about our need to rebuild ever higher, ever taller. Howeler-Yoon’s winning entry for the Audi Urban Future award designed everything it touched: from street pavers, to cars, to cities, airports, roads and the entire eastern seaboard, and still didn’t stop rolling.

You remember: You first saw these radical drawings in college and they inspired you. You’ve forgotten them, a little maybe, in the daily grind of door schedules. But Archigram needs contemporaries, who use radical proposals to challenge things we think are obvious, like whether or not architecture can learn something from a TV dinner. (It can.)

Second: in order to avoid thinking that you will be stuck as a paper architect — note the city you draw for the competition. The Chicago Burnham Prize, perhaps, is a fitting competition to suspend disbelief. Chicago is home to the firm (where you first tried your hand at all this, anyway) that designed and constructed buildings like the Sears Tower to Burj Khalifa whose scale resided, until recently, in the realm of the imaginary. Many of those speculative projects from the 1960s are possible with technology now. Chicago’s tall buildings could be proof that naivete is useful not just for speculative projects. (Isn’t architecture, after all, a grand exercise in naivete? A systematic, stubborn and forward belief in things that don’t exist in order to marshal the forces necessary to get those things built? Isn’t the job of placemaking a naive faith in our ability to construct better worlds?)

“But those were different times!” you say. “Before we knew about climate change, before the recession.” It’s true. You feel a cloud of frustration and heaviness that weighs across students and professional practice. In a student review that you were a critic on, many of the projects seemed to be just shy of challenging expectations. They tread the line of the safe and fiscally investable. These students, who started school in the heart of the downturn, would ask things to you like: “Can you do that?” There seemed to be a quiet fear, tied the staggering numbers of unemployment, which resulted in designers trying to tread lightly. Yet the economic downturn, you suspect, is a better time than ever to break out the paper architecture. When not busy building outside, maybe it is time to turn our gaze inwards.

At lecture early this year at the BPL, Diller followed up on her previous words on courage by saying: “I know fear in many things, but not in architecture.”

You don’t have so many tools that you can afford to discard any. Ignorance and naivete can be as useful as a pen or Grasshopper. Maybe you can choose, purposefully, to not know that things can’t be done and maybe provoke some questions about ideas we take for granted. Within the persistent forward crawl of experience as an architect, there is a constant truth that the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know. So submit the competition that doesn’t have a properly sized curb — and in fact doesn’t have a curb at all. This is a defense for the projects that have balloons, trees on skyscrapers, and blimp docking stations. It is also a defense for every detail a designer developed and then translated into reality. Go deeper into history to find the visionaries, then turn your gaze forward. And have no fear, at least not in architecture.

Lastly, push “send.”

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