The Past Is Prologue: Metropolis and Design History (Part 1)

Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief of Metropolis, delivered this keynote address on Oct. 9, 2003, to launch the 25th anniversary celebrations at the College of Design, Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa. Her assignment: to comment on what she saw would be the changes in design and design education over the next 25 years. The evening event was attended by students and faculty from all of the college’s disciplines (architecture, graphic design, interior design, studio arts, community and regional planning, and landscape architecture) as well as individuals from the Ames and central Iowa communities.

Having read your school’s envisioning concept, it seems to me that the college of design here is about to engage the 21st century full force. I applaud you for that and I look forward to your progress. I was inspired by visiting with students who are taking classes in the new graduate curriculum, which integrates culture, science, technology, social context, and comfort. It’s as if my hopes and dreams for Metropolis have finally come true. And you’re doing it here in Iowa, far from my über-metropolis. Thank you. I’ll be watching your progress.

Design and life are intertwined in your plans—and that’s where future practitioners will thrive. So it looks like you have done all the work and I can go home, but I won’t do that. I am trained as a historian and I like to make connections between historic times: the past, the present, and the future.

Design, as your developing curriculum reflects, is a two-way mirror. Design reflects culture and culture is shaped by design—with all the complex human activities and concerns that the word culture implies. Since Metropolis brackets culture between architecture and design, and since culture is a historically accrued human creation, I will go back to go forward—somewhat like William Morris did. I will tease out the major cultural developments that have informed the last 25 years, and hold onto the ones that will shape the next 25.

A small personal history before I get into the future-shaping ideas. When I was little, my grandmother would take us to visit her sister in the next village. She hitched her brown mare to her lightweight buggy and off we sped at two miles per hour.

No, I’m not that old: this was not in the 19th century, but in post-war Hungary, where I talked endlessly about wanting a TV. We heard about it on Radio Free Europe.

Skip to New York City 25 years ago. I was writing and editing on a manual typewriter. Our magazine’s layouts were pasted up with rubber cement, which smelled great! Type was set with metal letters put in place one by one.

That world is gone, and for me, it started disappearing 15 years ago, into my third year at Metropolis. E-mail, fax, cell-phone, and computer—these are now our tools. Design has become a complex interdisciplinary occupation with a growing need for collaborating specialists. So let’s take a look at what was and what continues to be.

One warning: I will use obscure and hard-to-grasp words like “sustainability” probably too much. But in 2003, we’re still at the point when we’re naming things to try to understand them. So please forgive my lame vocabulary, as it just reflects the confusion of our time.

1981. My assistant Laurie Manfra is two years old when this issue of Metropolis comes out. She’s a recent Columbia architecture graduate. And if she is any indication of what her generation will contribute and what they care about, we are in capable hands.

In 1981, when Metropolis is first published, the editors ponder the notion of life after “high-tech,” but this is a time when the average size of a computer’s hard drive is the equivalent of today’s floppy disk. This miniaturizing chip power continues to evolve throughout the late 20th century.

In the next 25 years, we may finally learn how to use chip technology, but more important, we will use our global, high-tech Web to benefit local communities. When artists and designers get involved with new technologies, they can invest these technologies with a sense of wonder. They can also comment on unlikely uses that may be prophetic.

This solar-cell electric chair—though highly offensive to me—also dramatizes the idea in 1981 that electricity might in the future come directly from the sun, gathered by a developing technology called photovoltaics.

1988. Laurie is in the third grade now. She recalls that “only the most progressive teachers in my school are voicing concerns about the environment. In my home town, we’re just starting to recycle. Every house-hold receives a new trash can from the town for this purpose.”

And we at Metropolis put garbage on our cover, dramatizing the fact that whatever is designed will eventually end up in the trash. We’re saying that we need to start thinking about how to design everything to be reclaimed and re-used. In 1988, Bill McDonough is a young architect who has not yet come up with such buzz words as “waste = food,” “technical nutrients,” and “cradle-to-cradle.”

Our cover shot was taken at the overstressed Fresh Kills landfill. On it, we pinpointed the problem. The design of garbage, our headline reads. “What package designers create is a form of advertising for their clients’ products. What happens to a package after a consumer buys it, uses it, and throws it away has never been the designer’s concern,” we explain, then go on to say it must concern designers.

1991. Politics and design have an intimate relationship, both on the large-scale, urban level as well as on a small-scale, product level (what is available to whom at what price is shaped by the economy that is shaped by politics). It’s all a system! We haven’t started talking about systems-thinking yet.

You’re looking at Soviet industry on the left, American big steel—the remnants of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—on the right. Socialism and capitalism are contrasted here. We visit the Soviet Union after the fall of communism and we look at the remnants of American industrialism. Reclaiming our industrial areas, and cleaning up and mining the brownfields they occupy, will be an issue for years to come.

Graphic design is crucial to communicating ideas as well as ideologies. Here is graphic design as a political tool—Lenin leading the Soviet people to greatness. The Babushka (in the picture) isn’t buying it! Today and in the future, clear, simple graphics will be needed to communicate things like access for an aging population and ideas about how we fit into the natural environment. These are issues that will shape life in the 21st century: Clarity!

1992. The ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act, was passed by Congress in 1991. This piece of civil rights legislation mandates access for the 40 million Americans with some permanent or temporary disability. This issue contained reports from the first Universal Design Conference organized by a design school—Pratt Institute.

We have yet to go beyond simple compliance to this law and come up with designs that work for every segment of society. What do I mean by compliance? Braille on public toilet doors for one. How does a blind person find her way to that door? Braille on the plaque adds complexity and cost to a small detail that cannot possibly be the solution to a much bigger problem.

There’s a long history of design trying to serve special needs. But it’s time to look at how to design whole systems, not just small remedies. For instance, how does a person in a chair get into a building? The intensity of this question is just about to burst open: 80 million baby boomers — the generation that wants everything now and who will not admit to getting old—need designers to figure out in the next 25 years how they can age in place and with dignity. Today, when architects design a home for a 50-year-old, they need to think about the community of diminished eyesight and physical abilities. There is lots of design work needed here.

1993. How we work and what we do is shifting constantly, so work is a natural and ongoing occupation of designers of every field. Some are already studying how kids use computers—not as isolated persons fixed in a bad ergonomic chair in front of their screens, but as a dynamic and collaborative activity. The rooms, the furniture, and the lightness that support ubiquitous and collaborative computing all need a design update in the next few decades.

1994. Laurie is in the ninth grade in 1994, taking a class called global studies. “Up until now,” she recalls, “we only studied American history in school, so this is very different from what we’ve been used to. I remember hearing the term ‘global village’ for the first time.”

Multiculturalism—though we rarely use that term anymore—is here and growing and will shape how we think about ourselves. This means our designed environment will need to reflect who we have become.

Here are a few future-shaping statistics. Today, California’s population is a quarter Latino and Asian. In 2000, the foreign-born population of L.A. was 41 percent, and in New York City it was 36 percent. We need to understand what this means to a designed environment where local populations demand to be heard and served.

1995. Chip technology has already changed everything, including our public behavior, to the point where we seem to be oblivious to how the person next to us hears our intimate cell-phone conversations. The next frontier will be to design environments, like quiet cars on the Acela trains. We need to provide talkers’ space, just as we’re providing smokers’ space — space away from the rest of us. The unintended consequences of design need to be studied more closely. The convenience of one person should not be an irritant to another.

Then there is the need for new ways of storing information in this information age. MIT is working on the world’s tiniest book—3/16 x 3/16 inches — that contains all the 180,568 words of the New Testament. Information storage and retrieval takes on a whole new design dimension.

1996. The late 20th century was the time when we finally realized that the fossil fuels that energized the industrial revolution were running out, and that we had to look for alternatives. This quest for a more complex and cleaner energy system is an ongoing one. We just began in earnest and we’re far from reaching the tipping point.

But we have youthful energy on our side. I quote one of my ethics students at Parsons. Her senior thesis mission statement reads: “Nature is the engine for living and living builds the need to improve.” She reports that when she was presenting in class: “I stood in front of all and said I do not want to stand here and say that I will design a better bike. I want to design a better world. I want to help make a difference and I have been like this since I was little.”

Laurie is like that, too!

1997. We have been wondering about the rich heritage, the lasting creative output of the Islamic world, for some time now, and we will be wondering for some time to come. And I certainly hope that every design student today—just as every kid in school—will get a chance to learn about the people we currently see as our enemies and diffuse that hostility with mutual understanding.

You’re looking at a building with a mastery of local materials, a mud structure in Mali. These examples are becoming thought-provoking ideas to sustainable designers. We know that it’s worthwhile to study such beautiful expressions of local cultures: that’s the advantage of a global society. We have access: we can go there, experience it.

There is no better way to understand a design problem then to experience it. This reminds me of what the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who was a regional modernist all his life, said to his students: “Design a window as if your girlfriend were looking out of it.” Think of this as humanist, not sexist, architecture. When Aalto said this, most architecture students were white males. Now it’s quite different.

To read part 2: click here.

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