Design in Crisis
Cindy Coleman investigates how the language of adversity influences design.
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 10/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
History has witnessed adversity's influence on the greatest art, literature, and music. The savage bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War inspired Pablo Picasso to paint Guernica for the 1937 World's Fair. Shakespeare personifies the War of the Roses in the titanic struggle between Richard II and Bolingbroke. In our own country, the soul of jazz, gospel, folk, and rock resides in the personal hardships and convictions of the songwriters—remember the outpouring of protest songs during the Vietnam War.
In the wake of the terrorist attack of September 11, crisis has redefined the language of design as well. According to Dr. Richard Farson, psychologist and president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California, we will emerge from the World Trade Center disaster as better designers and better citizens of the world. "When hardship occurs, it provides us with an opportunity—an opportunity to overcome," he explains, pointing out that adversity teaches us to cope with problems and become more tolerant of others. Still reeling from the World Trade Center tragedy, people are a bit kinder to one another, patriotism is sweeping the country, and core values are being reexamined. We are experiencing a fundamental shift in priorities, from desire to need.
Nor is this the first time that adversity has left an imprint on the design industry. At the end of World War II, we sought designers' help creating the image of a technology-based "new America" full of confidence, exuberance, and strength. Modernism, driven by the newly immigrated Bauhaus designers and architects, became the towering symbol of this new spirit.
Memorials provide additional insight. In a 1982 interview with Washington Post writer Phil McCombs, Maya Lin explained how adversity influenced her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.: "I thought about what death is, what loss is. A sharp pain that lessens with time but can never quite heal, a scar." The black granite wall, a V cut into the landscape with the names of the American dead and missing inscribed in chronological order, has become a profound emblem of reconciliation for a country still fiercely divided by this war.
Carol Ross Barney, principal of the Chicago-based firm Ross Barney + Jankowski, understands the aftermath of terror. The General Service Administration (GSA) retained her firm to design the new Federal Building in Oklahoma City, a block north and west of the Murrah Federal Building destroyed in the 1995 bombing that left 168 people dead and more wounded. Replacement buildings shoulder a greater responsibility, supporting the emotional as well as physical needs of the occupants, and the GSA set an ambitious agenda. Security was naturally the top priority for the Federal employees and their neighbors, but the GSA also wanted the design to express the notion of open government, to increase productivity, and to enhance the quality of life for workers, among other issues.
The project clearly has special meaning for Barney and her firm. "There has been an ongoing need to balance feelings of fear and feelings of hope," she says. "The replacement facility is about the future, to reunite the Federal community and stand as a symbol of freedom." Already, she's noticed, the tragedy has brought a degree of clarity to the work, allowing everyone involved to focus on the important issues and cooperate at a higher level.
Tigerman McCurry Architects principal Stanley Tigerman, chosen this year to design a new Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in the Chicago area, has also noticed this positive effect: "When poignancy is built into the program, the project takes on greater meaning. We focus less on trivial concerns. There's a heightened sense of design responsibility."
Where do we go from here? The current generation of architects and designers must learn from adversity. The tragedy serves as a reminder and reinforces the notion that the design community must transcend pure aesthetics to focus on cultural, functional, fiscal, technological, environmental, and emotional considerations, too. Social responsibility, safety and welfare, and quality-of-life questions can no longer be relegated to others. Our work has just taken on greater meaning.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 killed thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands homeless, the Windy City became a mecca for new architecture. Presenting the first comprehensive rebuilding proposal, Daniel Burnham proclaimed, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood … Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."