01 October 2008


If you are wondering what metadesign might mean, you can find all the answers you need in bestselling author Richard Farson's new book, The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything. In this provacative new book, Farson describes metadesign as a new level of design that can 'rectify fundamental public ills by addressing the needs of all people'. He credits architects as the gatekeepers of change, with designs holding the power to positively affect and transform the ravages of poverty, the faltering American education system, and the failing criminal justice system. That's a lot of weight for architects to shoulder, but really isn't that what design is all about? Which brings me to a question I have been grappling with lately, what is the motivation of great architects?

It seems like in today's world, often the firms and designers given the most applause and publicity are the ones pushing the envelope of possibility. The more daring the design, the taller the building, the more innovative the project, the more praise, the more success. Of course, it is vital that the profession advance, and that new and innovative buildings are created. As societal and technical advances are made, architecture too must adapt and change. However, as buildings are pushing their vertical limit in Dubai and high end designs are becoming more and more ecologically friendly and technically advanced, what happens to the large portion of our society not only financially unable to reap the benefits of this new wave of innovation, but at the same time seemingly pushed aside in favor of designs that will draw attention and prove economically successful?

How does one determine a successful design, when those measures span in range from the digital morphology of form concocted by architects like Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava to new ways to encourage a successful merging of incomes, races, genders, and lifestyles in the multi-family living environment. Could it be argued that a design is actually more societally effective if it is not a multi-million dollar, eye-catching project, but rather a cost-effective complement to the historical fabric of an environment? I make no attempt to answer that question (although I often find myself leaning towards one direction) for both of these components of design are important to progression of the architectural field. The underlying point remains, that although architects are agents of design and artistry, they are also dictators of societal patterns. The successes and failures of institution, housing development, governmental regulations, etc. can often be linked to the surrounding built environment.

One easy example of this is the astounding failure of the American housing projects of the 1900's. Whoever thought it a wise design decision to gather a city's poor population into cumbersome buildings lacking identity, amenities, convenience, or any sort of redeeming factor was soon proven desperately wrong. We now face a possibly endless and difficult process of repairing this damage and creating an integrated societal structure. It is now important for architects to realize their dramatic impact upon these structures and systems. Whatever the motivation behind design, the result directly impacts society and the way people live. It is vital that as society grows and changes, that architecture advances as well; however, it is also important that we realize that a constant pushing of this envelope must strive to encompass all of society and not just stand out from the rest. Buildings and surroundings dictate the way people think, work, and react to the world around them. As architects, we hold the power to influence and enhance the path of society. As Farson points out in his new book, as architects realize their full potential, there is no limit to the role we can play in future societies.

Critics have said that no one in the architecture field can afford not to read The Power of Design. In my opinion, societies and urban structures can't afford for us not to read this book, absorb it's wisdom, and buckle down to make a change.