A few weeks ago, after a strangely long hiatus, the 2022 alumni magazine from my architecture school arrived by mail and circulated through our studio. It finally landed on my desk like an oversized gift, a special 188-page commemorative issue, elegantly packaged in heavy stock silver-tone paper and emblazoned with the number 50 followed by “Today’s Global,” all spelled out in a neutral, modern-looking font. With a cover reference to “our world’s ugly histories and daunting challenges,” the stated goal of the 50th edition of Harvard Design Magazine was to both redefine globalism and engender new forms of cooperation motivated by “the optimism of those inheriting our shared planet.” Clearly, I thought, this will be a keeper for my design library.
I opened it up and began flipping through. The photography, mostly in grayscale, was limited and highly abstract. Rice factories and water pumps, refugee camps and toxic waste, an abandoned airport. I understood immediately that this was to be a literary journal of serious essays focused on pressing global issues rather than a glossy picture book of cutting-edge design ideas from around the world. All good, if I can learn something helpful, especially about becoming a better, more responsible architect.
On second glance, I could also see that, as part of the design of the magazine, the copy itself was aggressively formatted to create page after page of nearly solid blocks of dense text, like a bible. I wanted to cut the pages apart to read it. Up until that point, I hadn’t been consciously aware that typography could make me not want to read something—but here it was. Unprompted, others in my studio had a similar reaction, paging through and putting it back down as if it was a catalog of unwanted merchandise.
It soon became clear to me that fully engaging with this would be like swimming underwater and not being allowed to come up for air. Nonetheless, with articles and interviews by and with luminaries such as Ken Frampton, Rem Koolhaas, and Nicolai Ouroussoff, I dove in. Even if it meant drowning. I was determined.
In what is the clearest and most succinct essay in the entire magazine, editors Sarah Whiting and Rahul Mehrotra open up with their goals to advance a more productive discourse on globalization that doesn’t fall back on the “celebration of the local or regional”— although, as a champion of local character and regional building techniques, I wasn’t sure why that would be so bad. For me, a critical evaluation of the negative impact of globalization on architecture was not just welcome, but long overdue. Hoping that this could be accomplished without devolving into highly divisive finger pointing and generalization, I would soon be disappointed.
On just the first page, the editors conflate the populist politics of America, Hungary, India, and Australia—as if they were all somehow the same—to “reveal the paradoxes underlying permeable borders: openness begets xenophobia; progressives beget reactionaries.” Yikes. So, if I wasn’t conceptually in favor of “permeable” borders, I was xenophobic; and if I didn’t uniformly subscribe to progressive orthodoxy, I was a reactionary. This was exactly the kind of black-and-white binary messaging I was hoping could be avoided: You are either with us on this, or you are a bad person. And what does this directly have to do with the making of architecture? Foreign born, never much of a patriotic zealot, and more inclined towards leftist European style social democracy than American style capitalism, I was nonetheless put on alert. This would be an explicitly political treatise—and apparently what passes for broad-based alumni outreach. Interesting.
Sure enough, the subsequent articles managed to marry the didactic with the pedantic in almost perfect harmony: A consistently moralizing tone with no limit on word count or syllables. I tried reading some of the articles aloud to colleagues and was met with eye rolls, not because they weren’t able to grasp the content but rather because they operate in a world where architects struggle to be taken seriously on almost every level of society and where the language of design itself is a battleground. This type of discourse didn’t engage with their lived experiences as practitioners operating at the heart of today’s global economy; the use (or abuse) of language reinforced that divide. What was our way into this conversation?
There is clearly some important and nuanced scholarship here, particularly around the idea of regionally based responses to climate change. However, amid numerous articles and dozens of references decrying anything that could be construed as “Western,” “Colonial,” “Anglo Saxon,” or “Neo-liberal” (see the index), there were frequent provocations: Frampton explaining how good architecture requires state sponsorship, as well as his belief in the inevitable need for globalized socialism to solve the climate crisis; Rem Koolhaas (the architect responsible for the CCTV HQ, the nexus for Chinese propaganda) opining on the need for Europe to pivot toward China and Russia (rather than the U.K. or the U.S.)—all while simultaneously applauding the idealistic, mission driven zeal of today’s young architecture graduates.
Excuse me? Was that interview conducted before or after the invasion of Ukraine? And while the Harvard Graduate School of Design may consider itself a global institution, isn’t it also part and parcel of the United States and its own immediate communities? Beyond a Cambridge return address … nothing.
Other prominent architects expound on Buddhism and Taoism, hydrology, and the mistakes of the Federal Reserve. Leading architecture firms like Zaha Hadid and BIG are criticized for supporting an economy driven by “Western capital” rather than opting out of creative form-making to contribute to creating a “better world” by designing less exciting buildings—or none at all. American architecture (as opposed to landscape design) is characterized by New York’s supertall residential towers for (mostly) foreign billionaires rather than for anything more grassroots or positive. I searched for direct dialogue with established economists or policy wonks or social scientists or real estate experts or political leaders and found little to chew on. It was all architects and design faculty talking to themselves (or activists … and an anthropologist). Apparently, architects really are experts on everything, including global economics, refugee crises, social mobility, and comparative religion, among countless other topics. I imagined an issue of the Harvard Economics Review where economists wrote 188 pages of text about architecture and design without including any architects or designers in the mix. The underlying lack of humility was breathtaking. And, paralleling my experience at this year’s Architecture Biennale, there was precious little on design and constructing actual buildings.
Although I was a skeptic, I decided to finally try ChatGPT and discover what it would make of some of the impenetrable “archi-speak” that I, as a graduate of the program, was both accustomed to seeing and always struggled to make sense of. In a matter of seconds and prompted by nothing more than asking for a summary of several thousand words in layman’s language, the results were fascinating, delivered in a clear and concise manner:
The modern world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with its extensive connections, has shown that while some people enjoy easy movement, wealth, and access, others suffer from immobility, inequality, and displacement. This has led to a critical backlash against globalization, where some criticize international integration, others critique global capitalism, and most are concerned about the climate crisis.
When further prompted to ask how architects and designers can help mitigate the impacts of globalization and capitalism, ChatGPT laid out a bulleted set of proposals including affordable housing initiatives, green infrastructure and adaptive reuse. Sticking with issues associated with the built environment and the practice of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning, AI did not suggest revolution or proselytize; it provided a 10-point action plan instead (see the list at the end of this essay).
I have no doubt of the qualifications and good intentions of the editors and contributors and suppose a journal of this kind is very thoughtful and affirming to those who believe in big ideas and promoting internal academic dialogue, but, as a firm owner and practitioner, I’m struggling to see how it moves the needle here at home. At my firm, and presumably many others, we’re trying to figure out how to meet the new energy code, design with mass timber, address escalating construction costs, and still build memorable, sustainable, and beautiful places for individuals and communities that will last generations and heal the planet. Maybe that’s unfashionable to discuss these days, but I suspect that the lion’s share of the alumni who received this magazine have similar concerns. But, then again, this was clearly not written for those of us who aren’t interested in upending capitalism or erasing national borders—even though I still remain extremely concerned about the planet and its people.
And I could use some practical help. Inspirational examples. Success stories. Innovative techniques to consider. A 10-point plan that we can reference and implement.
Am I the only reader who knows that this was not published to help practitioners? Doubtful. Does anybody who was involved in putting this together understand how I could have this reaction? I’m not sure they care. And therein lies the problem. Academia and practice are not communicating effectively with one another, at least not here in the “neo-liberal” world where the vast majority of Harvard GSD graduates operate.
This advice from ChatGPT:
Efforts to make discussions more accessible and equitable are crucial for meaningful engagement and application of ideas beyond academic circles. Simplifying language, providing real-world examples, and using clear and relatable analogies can all contribute to making complex concepts more understandable. Collaboration between academics, practitioners, and communicators can help bridge this gap and ensure that valuable insights from academic discussions are effectively communicated to the broader public.
While that’s an important part of my reaction to all this, there’s more. Reading Today’s Global is like going to a dinner party where one of the guests opens up a controversial line of discussion with “of course we all agree that … ,” intimidating everyone else to fall in line or keep quiet. As someone who has experienced both sides of many political disagreements, I recognize this attitude (which I see here repeatedly) to be as much a tool of the “populist” right as the “progressive” left. Although it would be much easier for me to ignore, I sincerely believe that those who profess to want dialogue or a “middle way” need to be called out when they fail to do the necessary work to be genuinely open and understood—or we are all surely doomed.
While artificial intelligence scares the wits out of me from a design point of view, maybe, just maybe, it can help demystify the language of architecture and help us connect the dots of practice and discourse. Despite years of frustration with this topic, I am suddenly optimistic that it will become increasingly difficult to hide simple truths behind a tsunami of words. If you have any doubts about that, run this essay through ChatGPT for the abridged version.
Hey GSD, before you send out your next alumni fundraising letter, let’s all try to learn to swim and breathe at the same time.
I know we can do it together.
ChatGPT’s 10 suggestions for “addressing the negative impacts of globalization and capitalism while working to improve social equity”:
- Affordable Housing Initiatives: Architects can design affordable and sustainable housing solutions that provide decent living conditions for marginalized communities. By focusing on cost-effective designs and innovative construction methods, architects can help address housing inequality.
- Mixed-Use Developments: Creating mixed-use spaces that combine residential, commercial, and public areas can foster a sense of community and reduce urban sprawl. Well-planned mixed-use developments contribute to social interaction and can help create more inclusive urban environments.
- Adaptive Reuse: By repurposing existing structures, architects can help preserve cultural heritage and reduce the need for new construction. This approach can contribute to sustainable development and mitigate the negative environmental impacts of constant urban expansion.
- Designing for Accessibility: Architects can prioritize universal design principles to ensure that public spaces, buildings, and infrastructure are accessible to people of all abilities. This promotes social equity and inclusivity.
- Urban Planning and Transit: Architects and urban planners can work together to design efficient and accessible public transportation systems that reduce congestion, minimize pollution, and make cities more livable.
- Green Infrastructure: Integrating green spaces, parks, and sustainable landscaping into urban designs can enhance the quality of life for residents, mitigate the urban heat-island effect, and contribute to environmental sustainability.
- Community Engagement: Involving local communities in the design process ensures that their needs and concerns are addressed. This approach helps prevent gentrification and promotes social equity.
- Disaster-Resilient Design: Architects can design structures that are resilient to natural disasters, ensuring the safety of vulnerable populations and reducing displacement during crises.
- Cultural Sensitivity: Designing with an understanding of local cultures and traditions can help create spaces that resonate with the community, fostering a sense of identity and belonging.
- Advocacy and Policy: Architects can collaborate with policymakers and advocacy groups to influence urban development policies that prioritize social equity and sustainable practices.
All images courtesy of Hacin.