For the last few weeks, The New York Times has been touting its Energy for Tomorrow conference in New York on April 25th. It is devoting full-page adds to it. Keynote speakers include soon-to-be-ex- Mayor Bloomberg, secretary of housing Shaun Donovan and—wait for it—leading urban expert Jeremy Irons. I look down the list, expecting to see at least one new urbanist or some sort of planner, or an architect, only to be disappointed. The only professional actually making and planning cities is Jaime Lerner, who is an architect, but who is there because in his three terms as Mayor of Curitiba he developed models for mass transit and recreation that we are now copying around the world. So, what are architects when we're thinking about the future of the designed environment? Chopped liver (to use a New York urban term)? I guess so.
Here is how the Times describes the conference:
If the world’s steadily expanding cities are to thrive in the 21st century, how will we meet the challenges posed by global warming and the growing need for improved infrastructure, transportation, fresh food, water, and clean air? The New York Times will bring together some 400 thought leaders, public policymakers, government urbanists and C-suite level executives from energy, technology, automotive and construction industries among others, to debate and discuss the wide range of issues that must be addressed if we can create an urban environment that can meet the needs of its citizens and, thanks to innovation, run cleanly and efficiently.
I would think that some of the answers to the questions that the Times might want to pose could come from the drawing boards or computer screens of, say Diller Scofidio + Renfro and James Corner Field Operations, co-creators of the High Line, or even Skidmore, Owings & Merrill or Kohn Pedersen Fox, who are planning whole cities across the world. A bit further afield would be the likes of OMA or West 8—especially the latter, whose principal, Adrian Geuze, has been studying and implementing solutions for urban plans that confront global warming for at least a decade, and has quite a few built plans to show for it. I would think that the Times might want to look at the field of tactical or strategic urbanism, and invite the likes of Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, both trained at the Columbia University in the city of New York, who have made concrete improvements to cities such as Caracas, Venezuela, and are now plotting further interventions as professors at the ETH in Zurich.
Hell, I would even be happy if those new urbanists, whose ex-urban and suburban alternatives to formless sprawl are now old enough to offer proof of concept, for or against, were at the table. But no. Design does not matter, unless it is for a gadget. Form is irrelevant. Perhaps they are right. The one bit of designed infrastructure going up in New York right now, the Santiago Calatrava–designed station at ground zero, is a farce that is consuming billions of taxpayer money. Architects are serving their clients by designing elegant skyscrapers, but I have not seen the kind of concrete alternatives that the experimental tradition offered as a continual counterpoint to Modernism's consumption by capitalist clients.
MoMA will offer ideas about housing, but they do not seem particularly feasible. Again, its most visionary design work happens in the sphere of objects, as it showed in 'Talk to Me' two years ago. Perhaps the answer is that design no longer matters in anything bigger than a bread box or more concrete than a computer’s or a corporation’s so-called architecture or organization and flow. Is that because architects have created too many bad buildings and planners too many dysfunctional city plans? Or is it because technology has made their work irrelevant? Perhaps it is a bit of both; whatever the case, designers will have to work harder to get a seat at the conference table. And The New York Times should learn that concrete, real actions are just as important as vague pronouncements about the future.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.