Today’s DnA: Optimism and Reality in Design and Architecture

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The core belief underlying DnA is that architecture and design, at its best, is an act of optimism, and that human ingenuity can improve lives and solve problems. One of the guests on today’s show, Bjarke Ingels, of BIG (the Bjarke Ingels Group), is the living personification of that optimism. An energetic, charismatic, 30-something, the Danish Ingels is a protege of Rem Koolhaas and believes that buildings can embody the iconic form and big idea beloved of architects like Koolhaas, while at the same time satisfying multiple functional needs in an energy-efficient way. He spoke recently at LACMA where he dazzled a crowd, used to architects’ often wordy lectures, with a fast-paced, whizz-bang presentation of some of his 200 or so towers, multi-family, commercial and industrial buildings (mostly unbuilt) and urban plans. He has also published a book, Yes Is More, where the making of his architecture is presented as a process, not an end result, in a graphic novel style that is fun and very accessible to the non-architect. It’s not clear yet how credible is his claim to creating a new kind of  “hedonistic sustainability,” but there’s no question he is a fantastic salesman and inspired thinker who brings design alive in a most interesting way.

Also on the show is another face of architectural optimism: Bryn Garrett, a student at USC’s School of Architecture who, together with seven other students, joined a charrette (an intensive group design workshop) hosted by Facebook (planned by AIA San Mateo County), at its soon-to-be occupied new headquarters in the former Sun Microsystems building in Menlo Park. The goal was to brainstorm ideas for how to connect with the blue collar, suburban community it is moving into, as well as to improve the surrounding built environment. Who knows how much of this was simply good PR on the part of Facebook, or whether it was “friending” its neighborhood in a very real way? What emerged were a ton of bright ideas by young and more established designers as to how to try and integrate an isolated techie hub into a somewhat forlorn neighborhood. Garrett made the point that the best way of creating community would have been for Facebook to simply move it’s 2000+ employees into downtown San Francisco or Los Angeles.  However, short of a tremendous act of altruism on the part of a company doubtless looking for large, affordable space, this engagement in an urban design process might be a next best thing.

In the face of such optimism, the devastation wrought by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is a horrendous reminder of the limitations of abilities to control and shape our environment. But it also shows how extraordinarily advanced we have become, when a good number of buildings actually withstand a 9.0 earthquake, even if not a wall of water.  KCRW’s To The Point and Which Way, LA have reported extensively on the impact of the quake, the problems at the nuclear energy facilities and the degree of preparedness here in earthquake-prone Southern California. Santosh Shahi, a senior structural engineer at Arup Los Angeles, also joins DnA to tell us just what are the limits of design and engineering in the face of catastrophic disaster.

Carafe No. 5, designed by Etienne Meneau, 2008
Carafe No. 5, designed by Etienne Meneau, 2008 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Lastly, on a different note altogether, DnA takes up a topic that interests a lot of people, despite its negative connotations: branding. Specifically, we look at the way in which wine has, since 1976, been completely repositioned by and within culture. Henry Urbach, architecture and design curator at SF MOMA, has mounted a fascinating show (designed by Broad Museum architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro) that looks at the connection between wine and top-knotch architecture, art, graphic design, film, the travel and beauty industry and much more. The exibit is entitled How Wine Became Modern, 1976 to Now. Henry is really interesting on DnA on the story of wine’s cultural evolution, since a landmark “Judgement” in 1976.