In 2018, in a special report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described what a temperature increase of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels might look like: a greater probability of droughts; more of Earth’s landmass affected by flooding and runoff; heavier rainfall from tropical cyclones; an increase in vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Frozen permafrost soils will thaw, causing irreversible loss of stored carbon. Instabilities in ice sheets could lead to rising sea levels. Entire ecosystems will shift. And wildfires will break out — a lot more of them. There is no single “1.5 degrees Celsius warmer world,” the report cautions. Some parts of the planet have already experienced temperature rises greater than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Climate change is what is called a threat multiplier: barring a political revolution overnight, its impacts will be uneven, exacerbating inequality and poverty. Densely built cities are their own kind of multiplier, creating heat islands that boost indoor temperatures, which in turn prompts air-conditioning use. In the most extreme cases, modern buildings not only perpetuate ecological devastation but simulate a hellish future — sometimes absurdly so.

Residents of The Beacon, a 595-unit condominium in San Francisco, have alleged, in court and on Yelp, that construction and design defects caused such severe overheating that apartments were rendered uninhabitable at times. Like many mid- and high-rise apartment buildings that have sprouted up in American cities this century, The Beacon (architects HKS Inc. and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 2005) makes liberal use of glass. “We had a FULL DAY of sun in our unit anytime it was sunny. There were four windows total that created minimal air circulation (we had to purchase a portable AC unit). I also had to tie sneakers to the windows to prop them open,” writes Karen A. in a 2015 Yelp review of the condo that reads like Jacques Tati’s Playtime for the Anthropocene. “It could have been 65 degrees Fahrenheit out and it was still shorts-and-tank-top weather in our unit. Expect sun-facing units to be at LEAST 10–15 degrees higher and then minus the possibility of airflow. You will be told you can do things to your unit to cool it down. Special UV shades or film on your windows, etc. I can tell you that the tenants/community email each other frequently asking if anyone’s investments into these alternatives have worked.”

The Beacon’s architects argued that these conditions stemmed from value engineering by the developer, not the design. But, as history shows, a generous budget and even critical recognition is not a guarantee of thermal comfort. When Edith Farnsworth sued her architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for cost overruns on her 1951 namesake house, financial loss wasn’t the only thing she was having to endure. Sun protection consisted of silk curtains and the canopies of surrounding sugar maples, both of which were insufficient for a glass box in a humid Illinois climate. Electric fans installed in the floor augmented natural cross ventilation, assuming the east entry door and west hopper windows were both open, and the wind was blowing in the right direction. In a book on the house, critic and Mies biographer Franz Schulze offered in defense that Midwesterners “were long accustomed to enduring summer heat in their homes.” Besides, he added, air-conditioning was not yet common in domestic settings in the early 50s.

AC, or the lack of it, wasn’t always an alibi. In his forthcoming book, Modern Architecture and Climate: Design Before Air Conditioning, Daniel Barber describes the history of attempts to control the way the sun affects buildings by architectural rather than mechanical means. Many architects saw their work as a strategy of climatic adaptability, bringing specific thermal conditions into being through design of the facade (louvers, screens, and other shading devices), the siting and orientation of the building, the volume of enclosed spaces, and other strategies. “Developments of Modernism,” Barber writes, “were a means to induce a way of living (l’esprit nouveau, in Le Corbusier’s phrase) in which the building was the essential medium through which to construct adaptable conditions of comfort according to regional and seasonal vagaries.”

Although Barber concedes that “at many junctures this premise of adaptability was overwhelmed by an insistence on normative conditions, especially in the context of architecture’s relationship to economic development and the global spread of capital,” after the widespread adoption of HVAC in the 1960s, architects generally saw little need to understand the principles of climate-design methods or even analysis. In industrialized economies such as the United States, interiors were increasingly cut off from the environmental conditions that surrounded them. From sealed and conditioned rooms we distanced ourselves, too, from nonmodern—or insufficiently rational or scientific—forms of knowledge. “Cultural engagement with the question of how design mediates social and climatic conditions was largely relegated to a kind of nostalgia for so-called primitive cultures that were seen to live in harmony with their environmental surround.”

Today we can no longer speak with such condescension about the past if we intend to have a future. Dominant models of sustainability, which seek to achieve carbon reduction through technical fixes, have proven insufficient: despite significant innovations in energy efficiency—from better insulation and double glazing to smart thermostats—fossil-fuel consumption has continued to rise globally. We need different ways of living, different rituals and practices, different relationships to the sun. We need different design approaches that go even beyond the structured unsustainability that theorist Tony Fry describes as “defuturing.” Edith Farnsworth, in her brush with high Modernism at the dawn of HVAC, sensed a similar imprudence. “Something should be said and done about such architecture as this,” she told House Beautiful in 1953, “or there will be no future for architecture.” To this we must now add: innumerable forms of life, and even the planet.

Children’s Noise

Harvard Design Magazine

To some, the sound of children at play is a bitter irritant. But to German lawmakers, children’s noise is mellifluous. When the Bundestag amended the Federal Pollution Control Act in 2011, exempting day-care centers, playgrounds, and similar facilities from lawsuit-inciting sound ordinances that would otherwise restrict their development and expel them like trades of ill repute to city fringes, the legislation was accompanied by an upbeat appeal: children’s noise (Kinderlärm) is “future music” (Zukunftsmusik).

If that phrase is a sentimental throwaway, its connotations are increasingly various. In the past five years, the regulation of children’s noise has, in ways odd and unprecedented, become bound up with the futures of some of the world’s largest economies—embedded in long-term policy initiatives affecting fertility, maternal employment, gender equality, and urban planning. In Germany and, more recently, Japan and Switzerland, punitive noise laws have come under scrutiny. Parents and youth advocates see the rules as a sign of societal intolerance toward children; governments cite them as impeding and contradicting their efforts to boost birth rates and maintain quality of life.

While people born in these rapidly aging countries are the beneficiaries of very high life expectancies, they first have to endure a childhood at the bottom of an inverted pyramid, their laughs and shrieks the scourge of a grown-up population both less accustomed to and less permissive of such sounds.

Germany’s legislators recognized that if the introduction, in 2013, of universal day care was to have its intended effects (the availability of childcare is a critical factor in people’s decision to have kids), there would need to be 90,000 more places in day-care centers. So in addition to amending the Pollution Control Act’s noise rules, the federal government changed land-use ordinances to permit day-care centers in residential areas.

In Japan, where 43,000 children are currently on day-care waitlists, attention has also turned to sound. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants 400,000 more spots by 2018 in an effort to increase the fertility rate and female labor-force participation. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government voted in April 2015 to exempt preschools from noise-pollution rules that cap sound at 45 decibels—similar to levels permitted inside libraries. The city hopes that the new limits will relieve childcare facilities from expensive soundproofing and protracted litigation—and preschoolers from the burden of being hushed.

These changes have not kept kids’ voices entirely beyond reproach, though. Recently, in an affluent neighborhood in Berlin—which in 2010 granted children’s noise the same legal immunity as church bells, emergency sirens, and snow ploughs—a 16-foot-high sound barrier was erected around a day care and playground, instigated and paid for by a neighboring luxury-housing development. Community outrage ensued, and another plea was issued, this time by the director of the German Children’s Fund: “Tear down this wall.”

Uninhibited play, however, is a freedom rarely won without an accompanying financial imperative. Scarcity, more so than sympathy, has secured children their voice. Kids can be kids as long as they are taxpayers someday.

Guggenheim Helsinki Competition


Lists. It is hard to imagine architecture not getting its regular fix. The announcement of competition longlists, shortlists, and final lists pace the field’s collective conversation in a way that individual building projects or even group exhibitions usually do not. And if the playing field is not always leveled—too often, high-profile invited competitions read like Who’s Who lists—the site and the project size are at least common enough to make quick correlations and easily measure-up the contestants.

So this past June when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announced that the two-stage design competition for a proposed museum on Helsinki’s South Harbor would be open to any qualified architect worldwide, they were ensuring a full year of tallying and intrigue. Entries would be due in September; submissions revealed in October; six entries selected by an eleven-member jury in December; a winner declared in June 2015.

As to which, or how many, architects would enter was anyone’s guess. Open competitions for major museum projects are extremely rare, and altogether unprecedented for the Guggenheim. The brand has a Midas touch when it comes to buildings, but the every one of its iconic art containers—in Venice, New York, Bilbao, and Abu Dhabi—resulted from either a direct commission or an invited competition. All those designs also pre-date the 2008 global financial crisis, which has called into question such name-brand architectural glitter, along with the rarified processes that typically produce it.

In Helsinki, skepticism abounds. The city board voted in 2012 to reject the proposal, citing lack of open debate about the project and doubts about the museum-as-tourist-engine economics that supposedly justified it. Last year, the Guggenheim and its local backers succeeded in moving forward by ensuring more public engagement and greater transparency. We knew to expect a bigger, more democratic competition, but no one could have anticipated just how weird and benumbing the whole process would get.

The deluge began with a click. It was October 22, a Wednesday, and I had woken up to an email from a friend. The cryptic subject line: How to separate the sheep from the goats? The message: www.designguggenheimhelsinki.org/stageonegallery/view. At the tap of my mouse, the site launched and images loaded. Not all at once but rather one by one, left to right, row after row. Square, predominantly blue, they marched across my MacBook screen. When I scrolled, the gapless grid spawned more squares. Wooziness ensued. The sight of so many similar-but-not images—digital renderings of buildings of varied design on the same waterfront site, often depicted from identical perspectives—was crossing wires between my eyes and my brain. All 1,715 submissions were posted that morning, and fatigue had already set in.

I have spent hours on the site since then. So I say with confidence that I have not seen at least a third of the proposed projects at a scale bigger than their gallery thumbnail (which truly are the size of an adult’s big-thumb nail when viewed on a laptop and a toddler’s pinkie on a smartphone). At an average rate of 30 seconds per submission—each consists of two images and a brief text of uniform dimensions and word length—it would take over fourteen hours to view them all. And, at any rate, prescription attention enhancers. The same technologies that had enabled this apparently fathomless pit had rendered my mind incapable of approaching its depths.

But a pit it was not. As it turns out, the site is less deep well than database, and fully outfitted with Web 2.0 tools to help survive the informational flatlands. Browsing the submissions, users can search and share, shuffle and sort. Basically all the stuff one is accustomed to from Pinterest-y websites, but tweaked a bit to suit the content. For instance, entrants were given the option to apply to their projects up to 5 tags from a predetermined list of twenty-three formal and material descriptors like “twisted,” “fabric,” “transparent,” and “pyramid.” Now, picky users can filter the gallery according to their desires, fantasies. Like your mega-museums textured and smooth? That combination has over twenty matches! (Umm, congratulations?)

If you are okay having no real say in the outcome of the competition, if a jumbo dose of architectural renderings of slick swirling surfaces and gimmicky lighting effects does not make you queasy and/or hugely dispirited, then the gallery does inspire some kind of ludic and social and participatory behavior—maybe. In effect, the Guggenheim had transformed the entire competition pool into a content mill, and was now relying on us to mine it. The interface’s “My Shortlist” feature allows you to play juror by compiling personalized six-entry shortlists that can then be pitched effortlessly into Facebook and Twitter streams, circulated.

The six-entry max did not suit the kinds of lists my friends and I were making, however. By Wednesday afternoon, multiple friends had sent me, unrequested, their favorite-in-scare-quotes submissions,simply copying and pasting JPEGs straight into the email as they often did with similar digital inanities. Then, a week later, while on a lethargic nighttime Skype call, I roamed the gallery for images with Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dogand Louise Bourgeois’s Maman in them, using the interface’s “Favorite” function to keep track. Within a half hour I had star-ed seventy-four different appearances of those iconic spiders and canines. (It seems the architect-curators of these imagined museums learned art history from in-flight magazines.)

Ad-hoc lists were popping up elsewhere on the web too. At some point in the days after the Guggenheim released the competition entries, the popular real-estate blog Curbed published a post headlined “The 36 Weirdest Proposals for the Guggenheim Helsinki.” It was a quintessential “listicle”—the article-as-list form popularized by BuzzFeed—with a compelling combination of eye-catching cardinal number, zany adjective, and recognizable proper noun to generate links, likes, clicks, mentions, tweets, and, ultimately, site traffic. And to much success: the post now ranks—in the US, on my browser—second in a Google search for “Guggenheim Helsinki,” right below the official website for the competition.

Weird was trending. Meanwhile, conventional indicators of achievement were nowhere in sight. If this was a competition, why wasn’t anyone talking about the “best”? Where were debates about the prowess of one submission, the weakness of another? Had we grown that contemptuous of considered judgments?

The Internet has no winner’s platform. If anyone comes out ahead, it’s those who reach farther rather than stand higher. Buzz—not best—is the name of the game, the logic of our networked social media. Its means are its ends: magnitude of connectivity and velocity of circulation, reach and influence. Images, itinerant and mobile, are its privileged agent.

What, then, becomes of things as stubbornly immobile and site specific as buildings? For some time now, designers and patrons of so-called signature architecture have responded to this question with icons or image-buildings whose obligations are awkwardly torn between their real and virtual sites. But with the changes in our visual economies and image consumption brought about by expansion of social media and smartphone use over the past decade, the production of architectural icons would inevitably need recalibration. Maybe we were looking at one attempt to adapt. By embedding the entries in the media environment that gives value to and conditions images today—cat GIFs and blue-chip edifices alike—the Guggenheim has transformed the design competition into a kind of proving ground—or screen test. Whereas architectural renderings once helped jurors and the general public bridge the representational gap between speculative proposal and real site, they serve here not as mediators but as the things themselves, media objects whose performance is evaluated within their virtual environment.

Perhaps this is why, despite the 4:3 aspect ratio elsewhere on the site, the images in the thumbnail gallery are cropped into squares, simulating the familiar Instagram format that will give the project life blood when, or if, it is ever completed. And perhaps this is also why so many of the submissions are rendered with those artificial filters and faux-glow light effects. After all, it’s not the best project that the jury will be selecting. It’s the one that can buzz the most.