You can connect one part to another, so things don’t feel like an isolated skill or an isolated technique or practice, but you start to see the integrated dimensions of what we’re doing here on earth. -Christine Macy
Welcome to Design Makes Everything Better, a podcast about design as a process for making decisions and succeeding. Today, on Episode #6, Part 1, Vince interviews Christine Macy, architect, historian, and former Dean of Architecture at Dalhousie University. Now here’s your host, Vince.
Vince: Hello, and welcome again to Design Makes Everything Better. Today, we have the fortune of introducing to you Christine Macy. She was a professor of mine while I studied at Dalhousie University. At that time, she was also the Dean of the school. As a design office where we hire a great number of architectural graduates, she has been the mentor of many students that have come through our office; currently, even one in our office right now.
A lot of people who may be listening to this podcast that actually don’t study architecture currently or haven’t in the past, you get a little bit of insight into the variety of topics that architectural students, and graduates, and even the profession cover, and the things that we think about on a somewhat regular basis.
We cover landscapes, our identity with land, where it came from, and where we are moving toward. We also talk about the identity that we have with cities, ideas of monuments and ideas of installation and festivals, and how they all go toward making the cities that we identify in different ways. And blind spots of the profession. What can we do to be better as a profession in design and in architecture? We can’t be isolating ourselves, and we have to be more inclusive of different ways of thinking.
It’s a great conversation. She’s fantastic. We actually had to break it into two parts because she’s so whip-smart, and she has so much to say. We really couldn’t take out anything, so after you listen to the first part, there is a second part that is going to be dropped about a week from now. I hope you enjoy this episode and continue to check in. Thanks.
Vince: Christine, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s funny, I was looking through some of the notes that I’ve been putting together for the podcast, and I couldn’t help but do a calculation. It was actually 21 years ago when I had my first class with you, which blows my mind. Twenty-one years ago! Time flies. You look great. You are one of those lucky ones that do not age. You look the exact same as you did when I was your student.
Christine Macy: Wow!
Vince: You do. It’s crazy.
Christine Macy: I was already overaged then.
Vince: When I was your student, you were the Dean of Architecture and Planning at Dalhousie University. Also, at that time, you were the author of Architecture and Nature. You co-authored that with Sarah Bonnemaison. I remember you introduced it to the school, and it was an exciting bit of work, and I’d like to hear more about that today.
You’re widely published, and your current research activities—I apologize. I have to read this because—and I want you to expand on this because I don’t know if I get it, really, 100%. Your research work is focused on the cultural dimensions of Nova Scotian food-producing landscapes.
Christine Macy: Oh, my current work.
Vince: Yeah. Could you expand on that, first, and tell us what that is specifically referring to?
Christine Macy: That’s been a really fun project. As you said, our book, Architecture and Nature, which came out in 2003, looked at the cultural dimensions of landscapes in the U.S. That book talks about the way landscape and the ideas of landscape have been used as a trope for constructing national identity in the U.S.
This is relevant to Canada, as well, because the U.S. and Canada are colonial countries, so people who have immigrated here, originally as settlers and colonists, developed their sense of identity as people who were leaving the European state and arriving in this new world, which was inhabited, of course, but seemed to offer these new arrivals all kinds of opportunities: lots of land you could farm, seas teeming with fish, forests that could be cut down for trees, which didn’t exist anymore in Europe. In this U.S., this idea of the new world as a kind of infinite terrain to be husbanded or farmed or sustained or despoiled.
Vince: Right. Taken advantage of.
Christine Macy: Being eradicated or exploited was a big part of the early American identity around the frontier. My book, back then, talked about how ideas of landscape were reconfigured over the course of 100 years in the U.S. from the frontier to the idea of the national park in preserving the frontier, the notion of the frontier at the same time you’re expelling the indigenous people from the national parks so that you could preserve that essence of the frontier as a people or main dynamic. Teach young men to be out in the wilderness. Teach people to be self-sustaining.
Then in the 1930s, Roosevelt declared the New Frontier’s cooperation and the whole importance of the cooperative movement and trying to integrate technology, nature, and landscape. The best example of that is the dams and the Tennessee Valley Authority. And the post-war periods, the ideas of the landscape were about enclosing the landscape in the single-family home.
Ralph Rapson’s Greenbelt House is a great example of that. There are many examples of those mid-century modern homes that have bits of landscape inside. The idea of the domestic unit is like a little Eden. Then with the rise of the Apollo Space Program in the U.S., and the first time people saw the earth from outer space and that notice of nature being something that has to be sustained in the birth of the ecology moment.
So that book talked about those kinds of moments of landscape. That was almost 20 years ago when that book was published. Now, I wanted to turn to look at the landscape here where I’ve been living the past 30 years, and it feels like home, Nova Scotia.
Vince: You’re American. Right? From California?
Christine Macy: Yeah. Originally, I’m from California, but I’ve lived here 30 years, so that’s a pretty good chunk of time. I’m an immigrant like so many others.
Vince: You’re still “from away” in Nova Scotian standards.
Christine Macy: Well, and so are all the Nova Scotians unless you’re an indigenous person. So, wanting to look at this landscape, I was really interested in the different successive waves of people who come here have worked with this landscape, encountered this landscape and tried to understand it and also tried to live off of it. Each time they bring their way of farming, their way of building, their way of eating, “Gosh, I can’t cook the way I cooked back in England or France, or wherever else.”
Vince: You have to adjust it.
Christine Macy: “I have to adjust it.” I thought of calling this a culinary landscape. This book looks at the central district of Nova Scotia, the district where everything grows.
Vince: What do you mean by that? Do you mean like the valley?
Christine Macy: Well, the Miꞌkmaq called it the—I don’t know if I can say this correctly, but Sipekne’katik.
Vince: I would not be able to correct you if that’s right or wrong.
Christine Macy: I think the way it’s been Anglicized or Frenchified is Shubenacadie.
Vince: Yeah. I’ve of that.
Christine Macy: A lot of radio announcers pronounce it correctly, but I’m pronouncing it the way it’s spelled. It sounds like Subnecktic. But I’m sure it’s quite different from that. That means the land where the wild potato grows. The wild potato is a kind of small root that’s indigenous, and that’s quite prevalent around historic Miꞌkmaq settlements. It was harvested. Also, that central district of Miꞌkmaqi is one of several districts in Miꞌkmaqi. It encompasses Halifax Basin, St. Margaret’s Bay, crosses over the Eastern part of the Indianapolis Valley, south mountain and north mountain, up through the Minas Basin into Truro, and over to the Northumberland Strait. It’s the whole Central Farming District.
Pretty much there, you can get anything you need: hunting, farming, fishing, herding, all of that. It’s the most fertile area, and it happens to be the area that coincides with l’Acadie, Acadia, or what we now call the Indianapolis Valley Minas Basin Truro, all those areas that are the farming heart. I thought, what better way to look at food culture in Nova Scotia than to look at this district and how people have understood that landscape and how they’ve tried to resource their food from it.
Vince: Right. So it’s entirely a historical perspective?
Christine Macy: I look at this historical pattern of settlements and the kinds of foods that are made, and then the challenges with the way the colonial mentality has overtaxed the land as a resource and also been completely ignorant of or blind to the needs of sustainability on that landscape. They’ve overfished; they’ve over forested; they’ve over-farmed; overmined; they’ve done all those things. Then I look at the kinds of challenges that we’re facing today and what steps are being taken, who’s leading the way for a more sustainable way of farming in the future.
Vince: Yeah. Today, it’s very much an issue on the forefront, given the Premier’s incentives and attempts to reduce the amount of clear-cutting and increase the biodiversity. I think it was bill 4, and now it’s being edited because there has been a significant amount of pushback from private landowners that feel there is an unfair request by the province to restrict the way in which you can use the land that you own. Right?
Christine Macy: Yeah. That comes from the English tradition. One of the things I look at is the notion of land tenure. The British and the French both brought in a particular deed of land, which wasn’t that it was a shared resource, which wasn’t that it has an ecosystem of its own. It’s like, you own the land, and you can do anything you want with it. It’s called freehold tenure, and you can exploit it. Of course, the crowd reserves mineral rights underneath, and those can be leased to you. But that’s a very different approach.
Vince: It’s odd that that is something that would have come over from Europe. There is such a limited amount of space available if there is a sort of cross-pollinating that happened from the European settlers to Nova Scotia and how you use land. It seems like it morphed into something that’s a little bit more like a drug addict. You had a little bit of something, and now it’s just so prevalent; there’s so much land here. There was no limit. You could just take and take and take.
Christine Macy: That’s exactly it.
Vince: What you’re talking about is a sense of ownership that landowners have in Nova Scotia over their lands that doesn’t extend to any sort of community responsibility or social responsibility. It’s an interesting subject matter because this has to change. How can we change that? Or is that part of your thesis or your research trying to see how we can evolve that understanding of land so that we can protect it to a degree?
Christine Macy: I think we have to. The Europeans set their limit in terms of their land caring capacity quite a while ago, like they deforested Europe several times over. They’ve run into major problems with sustainability of all different kinds of agricultural practices because they haven’t got more land, except through the colonies, and also because their economic and cultural development happened prior to the Industrial Revolution, their time of great urbanization and densification, new starting up around the Industrial Revolution.
But all those practices were earlier, and there were even some very traumatic moments like the Enclosure Acts, which lasted for several hundred years. A lot of those older patterns have persisted. North American colonial settlements happened in parallel with the Industrial Revolution.
So right from the beginning, well, very soon after settlements here, you had the power of the motor, the engine, fossil fuels, which extended the reach of exploitation at all kinds of levels. Because both Canada and the U.S.—their huge development was in the 19th Century and the 20th Century became very integrated markets over vast areas that Europe has no parallel to that. That’s why we are now shipping beef to Ontario to be slaughtered and shipping it back again. Just like Nike shoes get shipped all around the world for different parts, automobile bits, and this you don’t find in Europe as much at all.
Vince: They’re a bit more self-sustaining?
Christine Macy: Well, they have an older pattern. They have a lot of inertial forces from history. So, yeah, they’re trying with the common market to get things moving. Obviously, certain countries like Dutch specialize in the hothouses, and so do the Spanish. You have these different dynamics happening, but you have this huge inertial force and a big value for cultural landscapes, as well, particularly in France and in Germany, like a pressure to maintain those cultural landscapes.
Vince: I’m curious, then. Why did that belief system not pass over into anyone in North America that would have been some of those earlier settlers?
Christine Macy: Oh, I think it did. I think that notion of having your own plot of land and being able to do what you wanted on it—
Vince: But I mean in terms of the value of it, that there’s a certain degree of it’s a bit precious; it’s not something to be abused.
Christine Macy: If you’re on a very small island, and the island is full of people, there’s really nowhere else to go. So like in England, you can ship people off to India, Australia, Canada, or the U.S., and then you don’t have to worry about as many people. But if you have all those people on the island, they’re not going anywhere, and even if you try to work them to death in factories, they’re still going to be there.
Then you have this notion of a sustainable system, much like the earth is like an island floating in space. If we don’t think of it globally, we can’t think about the relationships between things. North America suffers from this notion that it’s not an island at all. It’s an infinite frontier. We talk about this frontier even extending into outer space. So now, we can colonize Mars, or we can take the minerals from somewhere else. We can grow things. So it’s always this notion of infinite expansion. The whole insight of the ecology movement was that it’s not an infinite expansion. It’s actually contained by the sphericity of the globe.
Vince: It’s a very finite resource.
Christine Macy: Yeah. I think in Europe, they realized that much more, much earlier, and there’s only so far you can take the endless wars to acquire more fuel, more land, the Ukraine equaling the prairies for Germany, with the U.S. having the prairies. These kinds of notions are ultimately untenable, and I think now we’re finally coming to a place with a real sense of the interconnectivity of the globe underscored by something like this pandemic where we realize it’s completely a circular system and trying to come to terms with that means you can’t necessarily clear-cut your forests without having huge impacts. You can’t take all the fish out of the ocean or just keep throwing trash into the ocean.
Vince: As a professor of architecture from somebody who may be listening to this, that would be thinking that we might be talking about what a building looks like or how buildings are put together. How can you put what you’re studying in the context of architecture? How would you put it in your own words?
Christine Macy: I got into this issue of landscape interpretation through an interest in public spaces. I started out my architectural career as an architect designing houses and public buildings for several different architects in New York and San Francisco. I wasn’t very interested in houses early on. It was just too personal with the client. I much preferred the big ideas.
Vince: I know exactly what you mean. I can relate to that.
Christine Macy: So I specialized in public buildings and public spaces. When you work in this realm, you have to ask questions like, what do these buildings and spaces mean to people? How do people interpret them and make sense out of them? What kinds of things are they looking for? I’m pretty sure the answer is not the latest architectural idea, notwithstanding the power of architecture to have a certain media cache.
For most people, they look for buildings that resonate with them. I got really interested in how people used public spaces to help develop their identity. One of the first projects was actually in New York City when I was working there doing high-rise social housing. I got interested in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade.
We had a friend who was helping develop the puppets for that parade. It started from Westbeth, which is an artist colony in the West Side of Greenwich Village. This parade went through the streets of Greenwich Village. It was mostly highly oriented toward the gay male community. Most parades in New York are up and down the avenues like up 5th Avenue or down from Macy’s Parade and stuff.
This went across town, so we were really interested—my partner Sarah Bonnemaison and I were interested in why this gay parade went across town. It was querying the normal direction for the parade. It started in Westbeth Artist Colony, and everyone’s dressed up to the nines and prancing through the streets with these large puppets.
Vince: It sounds fantastic.
Christine Macy: It was wonderful. And, of course, we dressed up and experienced this. It ended up in Washington Square Park, a super important park that’s got a wonderful arch by Stanford White in the middle. They dragged up a skeleton there and hung it. The skeleton was sort of the specter of Halloween.
We were really interested in how festivals helped make the link—popular festivals, especially between the use of public space and issues of meaning. This is basically the gay community reclaiming Manhattan to rewrite it in its own terms, basically layering meaning over the city. It’s the same way we then experienced in 1984 the Centennial of the Statue of Liberty. The whole city, again, was transformed for that. They practically had the U.S. Senate on one aircraft carrier destroyer in the harbour. The whole harbour was full of boats.
There were walls of bleachers set up at the ends of the Island of Manhattan. I happened to be on the Jersey side looking at this spectacle of all of Manhattan turned into a stage for Lady Liberty, which is on the island. This sense of how a city could be completely transformed to talk about a particular moment really fascinated both of us.
Vince: Yeah, you can think of so many different cities around the world of which that central festival or activity has transformed a significant part of the city. The Running of the Bulls, for example.
Christine Macy: Pamplona, Palio in Siena, Mardi Gras in Rio, the same kind of thing in Venice for the carnival. Many, many cities have these things. We got interested in these festivals and did a lot of research in festivals around the world, and also started designing for festivals in Vancouver. We did architecture for the first gay games held in Canada in Vancouver in 1990. Then for a Year of Music with the ad agency, Young & Rubicam. Then the city of Vancouver’s bicentennial commemoration, which was commemorating Vancouver’s arrival, commemorating a very colonial moment.
The person who retained us was Gary Cristall from the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. He was given the brief by the city to develop this event commemorating this bicentennial. Of course, being a hardcore Marxist from many years and community organizer, he said, “I’m not going to commemorate this Vancouver’s arrival. We’re going to call it Arrivals and Encounters, and it’s going to talk about successive waves of people arriving and what they encountered and who they met and who received them or didn’t receive them.
That event became about four different communities in Vancouver: the Asian communities, Chinese and Japanese that helped build the railroads, and what they experienced. The Punjabi community, Italian, Gay, Lesbian in the commercial drive area, and then, of course, indigenous people, in particular, the Musqueam band.
We worked with local artists to construct four giant triumphal arches or monuments out of scaffolding and painted scrim canvas 30’ high in each of these parks. There were stages and music at the Folk Music Festival arranged in each of these parks. They all had scenes. These arches were based on the older British and Canadian tradition of constructing welcoming arches when you had royal tours of Canada. When the Duke and Duchess of Connaught came through Canada around 1908 or something like that, all of the local cities’ commemorative arches like the lumberman would do one out of lumber; the Chinese would do a Chinese one, each showing their loyalty to the crown.
We thought, all these people who came never got a welcome, so maybe we should construct welcoming arches for them talking about their stories. For the Punjabi community, we had a giant mural of the Kamagatamaru, a ship that was isolated and not allowed to disembark when British Canada changed their policy about allowing immigrants from East Asia who had served in British wars—a fascinating story. We had many, many of these stories. They were like giant visual newspapers.
We talked to people from these different communities and asked, “What stories would you like to have told?” Some man from the Chinatown area in Vancouver toward the lower Eastside said, “My family has lived here for several generations, but there’s very little in this city that speaks to me. There are all these things that speak to the British heritage or the British tradition, or new money, but there’s nothing that talks about our history.”
I think that does contribute to things like creating arches or creating, let’s say, the Sun Yat-Sen Garden, or creating memories, or memorials, or markers where people can see themselves in the city. Here, even in Halifax, there’s a huge push for heritage buildings, but it’s always the Colonial heritage that’s talked about and never indigenous—
Vince: It’s never inclusive to a broad range of people.
Christine Macy: Or to the first people. It’s absolutely exclusive.
Vince: Yeah, exactly.
Christine Macy: And then to the new people. “Oh, that’s too new. We can’t include them.” It’s a very particular moment that’s being privileged rather than saying this is a constant process where we have to be able to feel like we belong and see ourselves.
Vince: So in the context of festivals, which is important to you and you see as almost like a birth of sorts to a meaning to a city or to a place. It’s counterintuitive, the more I’ve thought about it as you’ve been describing it because when you hear about festivals, you think about something that’s temporary, not something that is—
Christine Macy: Monument.
Vince: —monumental or permanent or the fact that a city can evolve itself around a festival. How would you describe a festival today, maybe, as something that would influence the foundation of a city moving forward?
Christine Macy: Oh, I think it happens constantly, and it’s constantly being created. Grassroot festivals are constantly being set up whether they’re representing ethnic communities or different kinds of identity. A recent example here in Halifax is the emergence of Nocturne after the [24:13] series. That becomes part of the city’s identity in a very positive way. It represents a new generation. If you just had the old generation, we’d be having the—
Vince: You’re doing a drum.
Christine Macy: Yeah. The Tattoo.
Vince: Oh, the Tattoo.
Christine Macy: We’d be having the Tattoo forever.
Vince: I should have known what you were gesturing because to do a drum action—
Christine Macy: Yeah. That became the Tatoo, and that Tattoo was just so 1930s. It’s so mid-20th Century. Whereas, Nocturne is so late 20th Century. It’s very, very different.
Vince: Maybe to someone else who is listening to this that doesn’t know what Nocturne is; it is an arts festival that takes place over one evening throughout Dartmouth and Halifax of which artists and designers or interested groups of any part would create an art installation.
Christine Macy: Eighty percent of it is outdoors, so people take over the streets. They’re walking down the streets. They’re dancing there. They’re projecting rolling waves on glass windows.
Vince: It is a fantastic event. It really is.
Christine Macy: That’s one example.
Vince: That’s a really good example.
Christine Macy: We think about monuments. We have new monuments like the wonderful Halifax public library, but I think architects often think if we build it and it lasts, it’s more meaningful. I think the monument is like the crusty residue of culture. It’s important, but the living part is pretty important too.
Vince: Absolutely. Yeah.
Christine Macy: I think festivals are the counterpart of monuments. I see them as two sides of the same process of trying to make the place that you’re in meaningful and to be able to read the urban landscape around you as a cultural artifact in cities. In my book now, I’m looking at the natural landscape, trying to read it as a cultural artifact and seeing the current practices as well as the historical practices and the traces that we can see. So bringing that same kind of thinking—you asked earlier—the cultural dimensions of the belt environment looking at the cultural dimensions of the cultivated environment.
Vince: Yeah. You blew my mind there. You just looped it back in. I get it. I get it. You would describe yourself, I think first, as a professor of architecture.
Christine Macy: Yes.
Vince: What got you into teaching? You’re an extraordinarily intelligent person, and I can imagine living in a space of research and study makes some sense to me, but I’d love to hear from you what got you into teaching.
Christine Macy: As you can see, I like to talk. Students are often in the position where they’re curious about things. I think most teachers are also curious about things. So I think they share that desire to learn. For me, I like not just learning new things, but I like making sense out of the world around me, like putting together disparate things and finding threads that connect what seems to be separate aspects of our life, our experience, and bringing them together so that they make sense. That’s a really useful skill for a teacher because you can connect one part to another, so things don’t feel like an isolated skill or an isolated technique or practice, but you start to see the integrated dimensions of what we’re doing here on earth.
Vince: Would you say that architecture, specifically, or the world of design, offers a particular framework to that that is interesting to you?
Christine Macy: I think so. Yeah. I do very much so. In some ways, it’s the opposite of both art and science, and it probably shares that with engineering. I think both architecture and engineering have dimensions that have to be integrative and practical. So science has a way of going very deep into something by breaking it into little pieces and being able to understand the truth by going ever smaller and ever more precise. Then, obviously larger networks, and they have to draw relationships between things. There’s a wonderful scientific method which allows you to hypothesize and then set up experiments and try to find truth through that mechanism.
Art is more like having an obsession. You see the world in a particular way, and you just do it again and again and again. Very few artists can constantly reinvent what their obsession is. They’re a handful. Most have a particular set of obsessions, and they can go very deep into it and constantly refine it and perfect it through that practice.
But I think architects and engineers don’t produce very much primary knowledge. Obviously, there are some, but they always use the work from science and art and then integrate it and connect it and apply it and find relationships between things—the same thing with computer science, in a way. It’s about connecting and integrating.
Vince: Yeah. I’ve been really fascinated in having had a client who was a computer scientist and how his thinking process was remarkably creative, and in a way, very similar to the mental model that architects have.
Christine Macy: I think so.
Vince: It’s really quite fascinating.
Christine Macy: I have five brothers and a sister, and pretty much everyone is either an engineer or an architect.
Vince: So, yourself?
Christine Macy: I have one language person.
Vince: You’re an architect first, and a brother—
Christine Macy: My brother is an architect, and I have three brothers that are engineers and a sister who is special ed bilingual in the school system.
Vince: Right. Christmas parties must have very technical conversations around turkey. That is almost the exact opposite of my family. We’re all… My sister is an in-house counsel for an insurance company. I have one actor brother, one screenwriter brother, and a sister who is a creative person working in the world of textiles, as well.
Christine Macy: All creative.
Vince: Yeah. It’s pretty interesting. Certainly, it leads to some interesting, complex conversations, I would say. To come back to your description of the artists and maybe architects and artists being these obsessed individuals that—
Christine Macy: Artists more than architects.
Vince: Yeah. Sorry if I said, architect. Artists being more focused toward refining something. I might have mentioned this once already in another podcast, but I had a great conversation with Brian MacKay Lyons once when I was working for him, and he was describing his process as constantly trying to move further to the center. It’s a constant refinement of an idea or a form or something to that effect.
As much as I deeply respect him and his work, it’s one of the reasons I was so drawn to come here was because I wanted to learn something from what was captivating to me about his work. But looking back on it now, I really do much more identify and appreciate, I would say, where our office is now, which is trying to constantly increase the size of that circle, not to refine it toward going to the center, but to incorporate and to include other layers of our world.
I find that really, really interesting that something which maybe seems disconnected in a thought or skill or a point of view that somebody could have in our office if it’s somebody who is like a graphic designer may come in and be a part of a design project on a building and would have a significant influence on what the building is or what the space might be or something.
I find that if you’re open to those new inputs, as the circle gets bigger, it seems intuitively—I’d love to hear your thoughts on that—it seems more in line with what you’re talking about how architects are, but I can’t imagine moving toward a center is more inclusive to new thinking versus the other way, and in a world that’s constantly changing if you’re not open to—it’s unfortunate Brian’s not here to defend or to describe what his point of view is, and this is purely just my understanding in a conversation that we had many years ago. I just feel that our world needs to continually evolve the circle and increase it versus reducing it.
Christine Macy: I think that’s a beautiful image that you’ve put out there. One way of thinking about any practice is about the notion of excellence, and in that artistic or scientific model, excellence is about focus and doing more and more of it to try to find, as you put it, the core. I think there’s a very important place in this world that’s constantly changing to take a completely opposite approach, which you’ve already described as this expanding circle.
I think the areas of human endeavour that are growing very rapidly often are in these realms of expanding circles and often where they intersect. This has to do with bringing in different disciplinary expertise and trying to get it to work together to have a more profound understanding.
I’ll give you one example. This is in the realm of scientists, but not only because it also affects law and engineering and a number of things around our knowledge of the oceans. We can study different sub aspects of the oceans, but we have to look at all those layers of the system coming together to understand the oceans in their entirety and what’s happening with them.
With any ecosystem, it’s the same, and I think it’s the same for, actually, social ecosystems in cities. As we start to have models of knowledge that are more inclusive and more interested in this interdisciplinary approach, I think we’re going to strengthen fields like architecture and engineering and even computer science. Each of those has its Achilles heel: architecture, focusing just on design and beauty; engineering, just focusing on economics or functionality, or computer science, just focusing on faster speeds and market share. Each time has their Achilles heel because they’re vulnerable spot of what they’re not paying attention to and what is either not being done or they’re losing in terms of their participation and that sphere of their activity.
Vince: I really connect with what you said about the blind spot that exists if we are not continually expanding our understanding of what specifically architects or designers should be thinking or being a part of or working in collaboration with others. The role of an architect, as you mentioned a bit ago about it being more of an aesthetic position, creates such a potentially insignificant role in what could be a future for the profession.
The blind spot that the profession has is not understanding that there could be a more significant role in the contribution to our built environment or, in your case, into larger landscapes and understanding of how people are better when their understanding of both is greater.
How can we, outside of increasing our understanding and inclusivity of others and a knowledge base and a body of knowledge that we can always continue to increase, that we can hopefully capture and recognize more blind spots? What do you see as some of the more significant blind spots that we have as a profession today that we really should address or try to see differently?
Christine Macy: I can address that in a second, but I think there’s one thing that we should maybe talk about before that, which is directly related to what you were saying. This is how our society organizes itself around making decisions about what design and engineering practices need to be done.
If cities in how they’re organized and how they communicate and how they set up the framework for a project that they need to have done if they can talk between the different units in terms of their own governance structure, then they can figure out how to phase work so that you rip things up once and you renew all the systems at the same time.
What usually happens is all those things happen separately, and one directly undermines the next. So you put in accessible greenways, and then you chop it all up with bollards, better for another purpose. Then you slice that up with plumbing that’s for another purpose, and nothing works together.
But there are cities in Europe that are saying, “Let’s integrate this thinking and let’s roll it out as a sort of system. An architectural firm run by Rem Koolhaas, for example, OMA, started a branch of their office called AMO, which is just about helping institutions’ programs space they have better so that maybe they don’t need to build at all. I think that’s a really good lesson prior to design. It’s really about the pre-design scenario of who is asking for it.
Like if the dysfunctional family wants a house, it’s going to be a silk purse out of a sow’s ear because they haven’t come to terms with what they want. There’s no way you can trick that up and make it nice because, basically, it’s a mess from the beginning.
Vince: You can’t build a house to make a family work. It has to start elsewhere.
Christine Macy: And it’s the same thing with engineering. You can break things into small little pieces, and you might solve a problem around, let’s say, how to span this bridge economically. But is it in the right place, or are people still going to want to jump off of it? That’s in terms of the general challenge.
Vince: I completely agree with that.
Christine Macy: In terms of the specific: what might architecture do? I think to keep the circle widening; I think in terms of the educational system, we can do an awful lot. First, by not seeing beautiful formal development of formal design is the primary purpose of an architectural education, but maybe a synthetic way of observing, analyzing, bringing together, drawing conclusions of our inclusive approach to who is participating in the discussion.
An ability: architects have a tremendous ability to visualize, which adds a whole new dimension to narrative logic, and I think that can be harnessed very well in these synthetic understandings where people can get so much from the visual imagery as well as the words. I think we have quite a bit to offer, and I think architects tend to know a little bit about a lot of things and have the ability to bring these together in complex ways. I think that’s a real important skill that we could be developing that could work for finances, for trying to get the most value out of the many factors that come into a project.
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Thanks for listening to the first of two parts in this conversation we have with Christine. The second part will be dropped in about a week from now as we continue to expand the conversation into a whole variety of other interesting topics. I hope you like the second one as much as this one.
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Thanks for listening to the Design Makes Everything Better podcast by Breakhouse, a Canadian strategic design firm. This was Episode 6, Part 1, with Christine Macy. A full transcript and show notes can be found at breakhouse.ca/podcast/6.1. If you like the show, help us out. Subscribe, rate, and review us on your favourite podcast app and share us with your friends. Have feedback or ideas for the show? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[End of Episode 6, Part 1 – 40:24]