Saturday, January 23, 2010

WPA 0.0 - Design for Labor

This past week there were a couple of good write-ups over on Places regarding the past year's WPA 2.0 work by the folks at cityLab. The piece by Nancy Levinson, well worth the read, focuses on the larger discussion surrounding infrastructure in the United States. It posits that infrastructure is in a deplorable state, inadequate even to meet today's needs, much less the problems of climate change, sea level rise, water, urbanization, and suburban ghost towns and that this is an effect of the larger attitudes toward the idea of the state and the concept of "the public".

The WPA 2.0 projects- and many other expansive and heady theses, articles, and competitions- are currently focusing laser-like on the issues of energy, transportation, social and economic infrastructure in our built environments. We are desperately clamoring for the attention of Secretaries LaHood, Chu, and Donovan, freely offering ourselves and our ideas- "Listen guys, we have a plan..." And our plans are fantastical, speculative ways of combining building technologies with new forms of transportation and energy infrastructure. They are proposals for finely tuning or amplifying our current way of living (read here for an intelligent philosophical take on the fallacies of this outlook) and the best proposals range from the utterly macabre to the sublime.

In the most recent issue of Harvard Design Magazine, Dominic Vitiello and Michael Nairn discuss their ongoing inventory of the community gardens in Philadelphia. In discussing urban agriculture, they mention the idea of vertical farming and give their view that it is handicapped by being "a capital-intensive strategy for a labor-intensive industry". That comment elucidates the problem with our contemporary dialogue surrounding infrastructre- we are proposing solutions that are almost exclusively capital-intensive. We need to consider labor, designing with labor and for labor. We need to be showing our proposals to Secretary Solis, too.

In the discussion about infrastructure there are a couple of points that need to be clarified:

1. Our nation's infrastructure is in a deplorable state.  This is an extremely biased perspective based on 50 years of assumptions about how to build a nation. There are problems and our systems are aging, but in comparison with most other places in the world, our infrastructure is a robust system that is not functioning efficiently primarily because of the way it is employed, not for lack of major new capital investments.

2. The only way to address these issues is through massive single shot engineering solutions. We project out the needs of the system for 20 [sic] years based on past performance and growth and then assume when new improvements are anticipated in 20 years, the tax base will have grown to be able to accommodate the next super project. This improvement is, of course, quickly overwhelmed as use habits and populations change to fill the newly created environmental opportunity (think a road being widened from 2 to 4 lanes).

It is a wonderful, hard time to be involved in the building professions; we are no longer relegated to putting icing on cakes, so to speak. But there is a problem, and the problem is the second half of the sentence: "We have a plan... and it's going to cost 50 [sic] billion dollars." Our proposals, almost without exception, still involve capital-intensive interventions. 50 years of working in the world's richest nation have framed not only our rhetoric in economic terms but also our proposals and design processes. We are still trying to design the machine of the modernist movement. Sure the context and cultural values are now a bit different, but our approach is still to design a Machine for [energy, driving, playing, entertainment, leisure] Living.

I should state that I admire many of these proposals and I love that the collective voice of the building/design professions is eager to get to work. However, we are almost exclusively designing with capital, and we need to be designing with labor, at least at times. We also need to incorporate labor- jobs created, maintenance and operations needed- into our rhetoric.

Now, I understand that we are not experts are quantifying these dynamics and have to now left it as implicit (or, I would argue, rendered it away). However, a lack of expertise in understanding the details of our creative proposal doesn't stop us from speculating on windmills in cities, algae as urban fuel, and building our own mountains or islands. And that is not a bad thing- at some point, it is good to ideate freely and work on the details later. However, when we are going to Secretary Chu and showing him our new ideas for blanketing deserts in solar panels and floating energy islands of algae, we undermine our own credibility.

These speculations- more mashups of nascent scientific experimentation rendered prettily than serious architectural proposals- seem sadly out of step with our current national situation. As things stand (to generalize broadly) we are a capital-poor, labor-rich nation with a divisive political climate and a floundering middle class. When Secretary Chu and Donovan (or their underlings) get together and see these clever renderings of an urban waterfront with white-rendered buildings and huge windmills and models strolling along and then compare them to national debt and unemployment figures and divisive polling numbers (accompanied by nightly eviscerations on the news) it is unlikely they file it in the "to do" pile.

I love the beautiful failure, and the silly romantic notion of new cities, the fantastical speculative project. And we should work towards smart grids and widespread production of new fuels and new infrastructures integrated with quotidian life. But that is not the only project typology for addressing infrastructure problems in the United States.  If anything we have been an over-capitalized, over-leveraged society for too long.  There are possibilities for interesting, edifying work that can contribute to designed landscapes, and they don't have to simply be limited to feel-good anecdotes about urban agriculture.  The profession, especially the academics and editors and leaders in the profession, should give at least equal measure to the alternative ideas, to non-sexy sophisticated interventions, to proposals that design with labor, not capital. 

Maybe a little less Girl Talk, and a little more Destroyer.

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