Beth Pledger

Cynthia Frewen Wuellner, FAIA, consults with cities and organizations, is an adjunct professor in the University of Houston’s Future Studies in Commerce Department, and since 1982 has been principal of Kansas City, Mo.–based Frewen Architects, Inc. As a futurist, she combines her design expertise with strategic thinking about architecture’s capacity to reflect its context and time as well as accommodate what she calls “urban futures.” “It’s about holistic thinking,” she says. “Design tries to make things more precise and certain, while futurists embrace the opposite in envisioning the uncertain.”

The most constant thing is culture, but culture also is the hardest thing to change. Culture is the challenge that the sustainability movement has run into—value-based ideologies that are not easy to transform, even though we’ve had the tools to be more sustainable for years. There’s a saying that the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. Being a futurist is finding the little flecks of ideas, and thinking about them at multiple scales. We have to think about the future because we now have the capacity to destroy the earth. So to identify possible futures, I incorporate a lot of strategic thinking, statistics, and scenarios in my job. Cities are layered. Cities are complex. To recognize that, architects have evolved in their thinking from machine metaphors to natural, biophilic, systems-based approaches.

Architects work in layers and so does the rest of the world. Politics, community, technology, and so on. But architecture is science and art. Thinking about the future is art, too—it’s storytelling and scenarios, which is what urban futures is: human agency. Making people believe that they can make a difference. Things happen because of human behavior and architects are change-makers. It’s too bad that we have made unfortunate decisions at times, involving how we design or build. But architects are doing more and more now to reverse those decisions.

Still, architects face great challenges at the urban scale. Look at cities like Baltimore and Boston—both grew, at first, because of infrastructure based on horses, carriages, and walking. Now compare those cities to younger cities like Houston and Los Angeles, in which sidewalks were not even considered at first because the car was such a fundamental part of their growth.

Change is hard, there’s no doubt. But architects are change-makers and if you want to talk about planning smartly, New York City has the best long-term plan, in my opinion. It has what I call three-horizon thinking: short-, middle-, and long-term thinking. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a natural futurist, and he’s interested in all three levels at the same time.

Architects are futurists, but we need more help on changing the culture and dominant ideologies. You can change people’s minds one block at a time, but it’s large-scale change that’s going to make the difference.—As told to William Richards.