I Don’t Ask/For Much These Days

Hey Hey, My My.

Went to a panel on Design and Social Change last week at Moore College. It was the triptych of what people think of as design – probably what students are taught – graphic design, tech, consumer goods. Moderator Jeremy Avellino is a sustainability expert and part-time hero, and wore a t-shirt crying ‘RESPECT THE LOCALS’ – a product of Philadelphia Print Works, whose president Maryam Pugh sat on the panel. It was lovely, a underpopulated room of rabble-rousers.

“The first time I saw someone spraying foam into a building I’d designed, I freaked out! I said, “I BUILT THIS?!” and never did it again,” said Jeremy. “Now I am a spray-foam abolitionist. How boring is that. People on city council get really excited about ending spray foam, and then also immediately say it’s completely impossible.”

I’d run into Jethro Heiko there – the only word for this is the Chinese syllable translated as ‘auspicious’ – and, sitting next to each other, we just rolled our eyes. Jethro helps people confront death and dying for his day job. Compared to that, zoning disputes are merely fun, but as I am beginning to understand, they shape the city for hundreds of years.

Design is more than furniture, more than buildings. Design is the whisper through every field. Through most of the panel I sat thinking about Fish 2.0 and water innovation and Farm Hack and how to apply biomimicry to human political systems.

Anyone troubled by the divergence of “solving for poverty” from “solving for environmental destruction” can rejoice in that when it comes to food, they are often the same solution. It’s different here in Amerikkka, of course. “I think when we solve for poverty, we will solve for sustainability,” says Jeremy. But solving for poverty in Philadelphia often means buying plastic kitchenware at Family Dollar. What we need designers to do is figure out how to grow soybeans in the desert with 2 percent of current resource use.

“A farm is a built environment!” as Mat Davis pointed out later, driving home in his dirty, gloriously paint-splashed Tacoma. The architecture firm I work at builds universities, and the architecture firm  next door builds Walmarts. We might as well be throwing bombs at each other across the alley. I tried to read Vitruvius this year and couldn’t get through the fanboy introduction – an ode to Rome’s record of innovation in carnage and oppression. Someday humanity will be building beautiful houses out of reclaimed materials, and they will be both agonizingly unstandardized, and shockingly easy to source. The glory days of “sustainable architecture” haven’t even begun yet. Postmodernism can also be – wait for it… about materials.

PhiladelphiaPrintWorks.com – for all your holiday shopping needs!

I try not to get distracted. I haven’t even figured out what to do about energy yet in my hometown. The pilots of sustainability here are already charting new courses – this is a lively place for green initiatives- but I am still trying to spot the “chink in the armor,” as Mio Culture’s Isaac Salm terms it.

The only thing I am going to do now is look up “human-centered design.” Until Jethro used the phrase to describe what he does, I had no idea this existed: the design of human interaction. This is intriguing. When Mat Davis taught architecture, he’d have his students read a short story, and then draw a zoning map of the plot. I have a quivery feeling, like I’ve graduated to a higher level of magic. In 2007, Casino Free had a bigger volunteer GOTV operation than any of the campaigns -including the mayoral campaigns – for a ballot initiative that was legally nothing. But symbolically atomic.



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