July 7th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

Arcade, the Northwest architecture and design quarterly, devoted its summer issue to environmental themes.

But instead of hyping new “green” buildings and products, many of the issue’s essays (guest-edited by Charles Mudede and Jonathan Golob) propose a world with fewer buildings and products.

Granted, this year we’re not adding too much to the total world supply of them.

This is particularly the case with California professor Barry Katz’s closing piece, “The Promise of Recession.” Katz remembers how past designers such as William Morris sought to influence the world by promoting an honest, simple aesthetic. Then Katz imagines a near-future in which “every act of production and consumption stabilizes, or even adds to, our collective natural assets.”

This, he believes, means a lot fewer new products (of all kinds), hence a lot fewer people employed to design those products. But there would be work for “post-designers.” Some of these would revamp the already-built world to be more sustainable and more nature-friendly. Others would devise “an ecology of information, thinning the festering datamass and rehabilitating the printed page.”

Similar themes are posited by Golob in “Green On Wheels.” He argues that today’s gasoline-powered automobiles are just about as efficient as they can ever be, when you figure in the costs of refining and transporting the fuel. No, Golob avers, “carrying about two hundred pounds of human being in four thousand pounds of boxy steel, glass and aluminum” is an activity whose time will soon pass, by necessity, whether we like it or not.

Also in the issue:

  • Three fantasy illustrations by Jed Dunkerly, depicting speculative attempts at “Engineering the Environment”—using sky-bound sprinkler systems to rain on farmland, using offshore “wind rigs” to alter air currents, and using construction cranes to plant fully-grown trees.
  • Nicholas Veroli on the meaning of “catastrophe,” and whether any situation (including the present environmental crisis) can be called one before it’s past-tense.
  • Erin Kendig on Krazy!, a book documenting last year’s Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit exploring the surrealistic sides of comics, animation, and related arts.
  • Jim Cava reviewing Tony Fry’s book Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. Cava agrees with Fry’s assertion that the constant making and selling of what Cava calls “unnecessary consumables” is bad for the planet, no matter how “green” any individual product is claimed to be. Fry and Cava insist we need to redesign our whole consumerist culture, not merely individual consumer products.

If we take Fry’s case (and those of the other Arcade contributors) seriously, the human-built environment will change. It’s not just unwise to keep going the way we’ve gone this past century, it’s impossible.

The only question is what we’ll change into.

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