The ancient Romans read the entrails of sacrificed animals to forecast the future. Today, we have economic statistics and syndicated prognosticators to tell us what’s going to happen. At this year’s Monterey Design Conference in California in October, though, I looked to the skies and listened to a couple of dozen presentations to see what might be in our future. The skies were overcast and the air had a chilly edge to it, but it never stormed or got nasty. I took this as a sign from the heavens that the climate for architects may be threatening but won’t get as bad as we may fear.
The Monterey coast right before it got cloudy and chilly.
A similarly mixed forecast came from inside Merrill Hall at the Asilomar Conference Center, as architects from California (mostly) and a few lands further away showed their work and spoke about the challenges they face. Robert Hale, FAIA, the chairperson of this year’s conference, said that with the start of a new administration in Washington, he hoped that “the era of short-term gains is over” and advised the attendees that they need to “rethink what it means to be an architect.” My boss, Robert Ivy, FAIA, the editor of Architectural Record, recalled being confronted recently by a student who asked, “Why are you still promoting iconic architecture?” The student wanted to pursue “an architecture of caring and social responsibility,” said Ivy. “I don’t know if that’s what is going to happen in the coming years, but it offers one scenario.”
Walking to an event at the Asilomar Conference Center
In a talk entitled “Collective Responsibility,” Francine Houben, Hon. FAIA, a partner at the Dutch firm Mecanoo Architecten, showed some of her work and talked about its roots in the soil and climate of Holland. The 90 people working for the firm all feel a “collective responsibility for sustainability. . . and for finding identity in a world of globalization,” said Houben.
A panel discussion entitled “Urbanism Today” brought together Craig Hodgetts, FAIA of Hodgetts + Fung, Craig Hartman, FAIA, of SOM, Thom Mayne, FAIA of Morphosis, and Jennifer Wolch, dean of the college of environmental design at U.C. Berkeley. Large urban projects in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Paris, New York, and the Bay Area flashed on the screen and the panelists talked about “regenerative urban ecology,” “social and economic polarization,” “biological thinking,” and “buildings that create radical differentiation.”
Stephen Luoni, Assoc. AIA, showed some of the work he’s doing at the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and opened everyone’s eyes about the possibilities of urbanizing the northwest corner of Arkansas where Wal-Mart is driving the economy.
Emerging voices in the profession, including Hadrian Predock, AIA, John Frane, Craig Steely, Robert Edmonds, Vivian Lee, and Michel Rojkind presented work exploring new possibilities and directions. Meanwhile, Nader Tehrani, Neil Denari, Rick Joy, AIA, and Kazuyo Sejima each showed projects that were provocative and beautiful.
An old-timer, though, stole the show with some hard-earned wisdom and cautionary remarks. Eighty-two-year-old Ray Kappe, who was the subject of a documentary by Checkerboard Films shown one evening, commented that “None of the speakers has dealt with the changing demographics of our cities. Los Angeles, for example, is becoming increasingly Latino and the Latino lifestyle is different from that of Anglos. Architecture and planning need to address this.” He also stated, “I don’t think the architect needs to be the master of everything. Rather, we need to learn how to collaborate.”
Kappe continued in his quiet voice, saying “It’s hard for me to conceive of the scale of projects shown by some of the speakers. I worry about how the individual relates to these places. After World War II, we built so much, so fast, and so big that we didn’t have time to really think about the individual person. I worry that we’ll get back to that moment when people said, ‘This modernism doesn’t work. Let’s try something else.’”
Ray Kappe (left) in conversation with Robert Ivy.