4/21/2020 - The essay below was drafted in the summer of 2019, as the thesis group was being advertised, and well before COVID19 had changed planetary consciousness. Since then, two broad response strategies have begun to emerge: rethinking density in cities and the use of technology. This has underscored the need to consider spatial and technological issues as interwoven issues. Hasty technological solutions must not be allowed to diminish personal privacy, nor should we accept the lazy answer that urban density is dangerous. It’s more important than ever that communities are able to assess and imagine the possibilities ahead of them, not as spatial or technological “solutions,” but as integrated and holistic ways of life.


Four trends will reshape cities and buildings in the near future: rising climate, increasing urbanization, declining trust in public institutions, and increasing computing power, as illustrated on the homepage.

Together, the first two trends will put incredible pressure on cities to adapt to warmer climates and more violent weather events, while at the same time getting used to increasingly dense cohabitation and more intensively shared resources. In the past, density in cities has been a source of generative creativity leading to great exchanges of ideas between ever more diverse groups of people, so there should be some hope that as humans confront the challenges of the 21st century, we will do so as a predominantly urban species—as city dwellers who can rely on strength in numbers and combined wisdom to tackle whatever surprises come next.

But the idea of “sharing” is under renovation in 2019. Whereas in an industrial society the institutions of the state—post office, courts, local government, water department, etc.—were the baseline of social and hard infrastructure that enabled a shared life together, today “sharing” is more likely to be heard in the phase “sharing economy,” which describes a wide array of business models both fueled by technology and funded by venture capitalists. The sharing economy has been widely criticized for being more effective at meeting consumerist wishes than the core needs of humans. For instance, while it may be nice to have a smoothie delivered to your door in 20 minutes or less for free, the collective intelligence and millions of dollars of investment poured into Seamless, Grubhub, and similar platforms have provided little in the way of ideas for how similar technologies and funding models might be used to reduce hunger, feed homebound elderly, or any number of other issues that our institutions are charged with doing.

It does not feel like an accident that at the same moment that the sharing economy has grown, trust in institutions has declined. Indeed, sharing economy apps notwithstanding, it appears to be getting harder and harder for humans to share anything! Political polarization is evidence of the difficulty of sharing ideas, wealth polarization indexes the decline is shared prosperity, and the privatization of public spaces complicate the norm of cities as shared space. This is happening against a backdrop of widespread protests. The Umbrella Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and #ResistTrump are just a handful of the deeply felt expressions of declining trust in the institutions of society.

To summarize: climate will force humans to rethink where and how we’ve lived during industrial society, institutions are struggling to make life good for everyone, and technology is exciting and promising, but tends to exclude many.

These problems are larger than architecture and will not be solved by the design of a building, no matter how clever! The work in front of us is manifold, but here are at least two aspects that architects today can lead:

Architects can make change real. For example, take the possibility of delivery of goods by autonomous vehicle. In the abstract, this notion implies that individuals gain convenience at the expense of jobs in what can be described as a zero sum exchange. He wins, she loses. This is often the level of political debate: distant from facts and short on details. But as a designer, if you dig into the practical realities of robot delivery, if you study the technology and apply your understanding of cities and their complex terrain, you are far better positioned to develop nuanced proposals that make the best of technological automation and human ability. By telling a richer story, and using your ability to visualize the possibilities, you can make change real for people in a way that makes the future desirable.

Architects can fill the vision vacuum. Architects will not be alone in producing visions of the future. Indeed, technologists are currently dominating the media when it comes to visions of drones, autonomous vehicles, and other technologies that promise to revolutionize city living. But for who? At what expense? Funded how? Governed by whom? With most politicians unable or unwilling to engage in the details of technology, our political sector has failed to harness emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, machine learning, computer vision, and the like to produce optimistic visions of post-industrial life. The vacuum is currently being filled by for-profit companies with their own agendas. By recommitting to the architect’s obligation to always consider the public you can create compelling visions of the future that enhance the common good in practical and plausible ways.

US Patent #US9777502B2, currently assigned to Amazon Technologies Inc, offers a glimpse of the "accelerationist" view of buildings as a limited form of infrastructure for the deployment of technological services such as deliveries by flying drones. We might consider this a feat of raw engineering that is awaiting a shell, a form, or a narrative that expands its false functionalism into a more robust presence in our cities.

IMG: US Patent Office

A century ago designers and architects took on the challenge of expressing the new technologies of that era. Le Corbusier obsessed over automobiles and airplanes, developing architectural forms that abstractly expressed those technologies and their milieu (5). Raymond Loewy created a formal language to domesticate and make familiar such significant changes to everyday life as the introduction of electrical appliances and the railroad (6).

Le Corbusier's ground plan of the Villa Savoy, showing a radius designed to accommodate the turning circle of vehicles, is an attempt to make sense of a new technology, how it relates to humans, and the way in which it could inspire new architectural forms.

IMG: Œuvre Complete

Sunbeam T9 Toaster designed by Raymond Loewy and sold in the 1930s. As Susan Heller described in the New York Times, "When Raymond Loewy and the century were young, the look of life was different. Everyday objects were bulky, colors were dowdy and machines bristled with ungainly protuberances." Loewy helped craft a visual language that brought electrical appliances into our homes and high speed vehicles into our cities.

IMG: Unknown

Today the discipline of architecture has the opportunity to remember that it is fundamentally a discipline of the future—of shaping what could be, of proposing what should be, and of enabling what will be. We are once again asked to make sense of technological change and to harness the potential for upheaval that comes with it. We are challenged to get to know the technologies of autonomous vehicles and robots in simple, even dumb, terms. We are challenged to understand how they work, when they break, what rituals of everyday life they will make obsolete, and what new potentials they will enable. Once we’ve done this, we’re asked to design buildings that are expressive of this new era.

We will naturally be more skeptical than earlier generations. After all, we’ve seen what automobiles did to our cities while we were asleep at the wheel. Still, the pressing reality of the macro trends described above calls us to save our cynicism for the bar, while cautiously centering our optimism in the studio. If the job of the architect is inherently to produce images of possible futures, don’t you think that we should spend our time producing visions of the future that are worth fighting for?

Further Materials

  1. Course Announcement (NewspaperPresentation)
  2. Syllabus
  3. Supplemental Readings