Seattle in the Time of Amazon

Martin Pedersen was my editor when I wrote for Metropolis. He's now the executive director of a group called the Common Edge Collaborative, which is dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the broader public that it's supposed to serve. He saw me fuming on FB about someone else's thinking how great Amazon might be for Philadelphia, and suggested I write my own essay. (Just click on the arrow after the title.)


On Shooting Butterflies

Well, the final news is out, the fix is in, headlines tell us that three major universities agree: we’ve had it, the sixth great environmental catastrophe is upon us, species are going extinct in unprecedented numbers, and humankind may not last another hundred years. It’s a relief, I must say.

When they finally get a diagnosis proving there’s something really wrong with them, people often feel relieved, even if the diagnosis is terminal. It’s a relief to be believed. It’s a relief to know you didn’t make it up. It’s a relief to have a timeframe: you’ve got six months to live--you’d better get your taxes in. For me, it’s a relief to know the long race to save humanity is over. It’s a race I’ve been running all my life, and I’m ready to hang up my track shoes.

When I was 13, in 1970, I sat huddled on a picnic blanket on a cold day on Stinson Beach listening to my chemist sister monologue about the scientific facts that proved humankind would be dead from pollution by 1985. We all needed to do everything we could to avoid the end. She, for one, had been recycling her aluminum foil and had saved a roll in the last year. I remember thinking at the time that cutting down on aluminum foil usage might not turn the tide. But, looking back, that was also the day that I realized I shouldn’t have children, because it would be a terrible thing to come to consciousness in a world that was on its way out.

For the rest of my life, humanity’s slow demise ran in the background of my mind, ran silent and anxious and unconscious no matter where I was or what I was doing. The fear that I was not doing enough to “save humanity” was always there, thwarting plans and curtailing dreams. This painful drip, this knowledge of ecological disaster, kept me focused on the terror of life rather than on its beauty, and I avoided many of the deepest experiences of living.

In order to save the world, I became a designer. If everyone just listened to me, perhaps humanity had a chance. In this ego-strength I followed in the footsteps of Morris and Gropius and Jacobs, but unlike them I did not have a positive manifesto for change. I had a fear of the future, not a plan for it. I became vocal. I became passionate-- that much over-used word that couples desire with heartbreak.  And, in the course of things, I became overwhelmed.

I teach “Design for Social Change” at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. We’re tiny. We have 800 students. We teach art and design and dance and theater and champion independent thinking. The main campus building is a repurposed seven story printing building. In the last year, Amazon has been building five tall, steel-and-glass office buildings in a ring around our small campus, dwarfing our old building and battering our days with pneumatics. When I go to lunch, I see hundreds of thirty year-old white males with Amazon lanyards who have been let out of their cubicles for their well-deserved and timed lunch breaks. South Lake Union, right below us on the hill, has been totally redone in the last few years, designed to look like a bunch of independent restaurants and stores, but in reality a mall, a habitat for software engineers, planned by a company called Vulcan.

We teach about art and self-expression and independent thinking, but we are ringed by corporate control. One afternoon I was walking from the college past a huge building site and things started to jumble in my mind. I froze in a flood of fear. I couldn’t walk forward and I couldn’t walk back. I felt that I was disintegrating. It had been 15 years since my last panic attack and I didn’t see the old routine coming.

Was it the height of the new construction looming over me? Was it too much work and coffee and not enough food? Or was it the sudden fear that nothing I had done or could do could change the relentless march of the material-consuming culture and that everything I had tried to do to help save humankind had been a ridiculous waste of time. Tall and smart and ego-driven as I was, I was tiny, and no match for tons of steel and glass and the corporate machine that created them. 

Fear is the best way to make bad decisions. During the Russian Revolution, as dirty and cruel a revolution as anything going on right now, it became fairly common for surrounded villagers to shoot their children rather than risk their torture at the hands of partisans. Are we shooting our children? Are we filling our students with a constant diet of facts about the end of the world, assuming dystopia awaits, leaving them no room for their human needs and deep desires? Does our insisting that they shoulder the burdens bequeathed to them by two hundred years of stupid human mess-ups do anything to make their lives better?  Or does this burden freeze them in panic, force them to take refuge in dreams of rusticity or in incoherent aesthetics? When Design teaches responsibility for overwhelming crises, it doesn’t create agency, it creates anxiety, and anxiety is fear.

So here's the thing. I'm not hanging up my track shoes just yet. I plan to do what I can still do. But of the things I can still do, perhaps the most important is being a witness. Butterflies are going extinct, but that doesn't mean we need to shoot them to put them out of their misery. Just because humanity is up against it doesn’t mean we can't witness for art and design and music-- for the good things that human life can make and be. Have kids or get married or put down roots or fight for equality or do what the heck you want to do with your life and your ability. But don't exhaust yourself. The odds are overwhelming: the diagnosis is terminal. We’re all going to die. So live.






Design for Life


In CityArts Magazine


What’s good design? A plum-colored Max Mara coat on the cover of W? An all-steel kitchen advertised in House Beautiful? Anything in the Design Within Reach catalog?


For most of us, good design is a luxury, in the way that old cognac is a luxury or a vacation in a hut on a Bali beach is a luxury. We’ve learned to equate good design with having money—lots of money—and with the cool heft of expensive consumer products.

We think good design is the icing on the cake of life. It’s the stuff we can jettison in bad times, the stuff we’ll buy when everything is going right. That’s when we’ll get a contemporary architect to design us a sustainable, quadruple-platinum LEED dwelling. That’s when we’ll wear plain grey cashmere sweats around the house and dish up dinner from big white bowls with heavy salad servers.

It’s unfortunate that William Morris’s wallpaper and Marianne Brandt’s Bauhaus teakettle were such hits with the public back in the early 1900s because that’s where the big split happened. “Good-aesthetic” split from “good-ethical” and we began fetishizing designed objects—objects originally designed to function within a grander philosophical scheme.

The old Postmoderns claimed they were the first to pull down the construct of modernism, but the “good” in “good design” was altered long before they got their ironic paws on its dusty shell. The ideological “good” in the Modern died the first time a German dowager held a Brandt teapot to her ample bosom and declared, “Isn’t it divine! I must have three.”

When I ask you to consider the importance of good design, I sound as though I’m asking you to agree that your life would be better if you could afford expensively made and branded products. But I’m asking you to do the opposite: Consider the other good in good design. That other good, not necessarily shiny or handsome, is really the more important piece, though it may not shout your net worth. It’s a kind of design that’s invisible and asks what it can do to make life better for all people in a city, in a culture or (gasp) in the world.

Good design is not always aesthetically pleasing. Some brilliant shipwright realized that women commuters were crowding into the restroom to put on makeup, making a terrible morning jam, and so added a big, mirrored “putting-on-your-morning-make-up” space into the design of Washington’s current ferry, which gives me an extra half hour in the morning, lets me joke and laugh with other women and reduces my blood pressure. This isn’t a perfectly aesthetically pleasing space, but it’s good design because it’s design that makes people’s lives better.

When William Morris started the whole Modern design movement—he did, though his stuff doesn’t look modern—his biggest concern was for the welfare of men and women. After many years spent decrying the lousy things modernist ego and rigidity did to design, I find myself agreeing with Morris—and, to an extent, with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius— agreeing with the idea that good design makes life better. It’s not enough to make something look good.

After many years in design, I believe that if a room or app or jacket is created with an understanding of what materials can do, of what humans and flora and fauna and the ocean and the air need in order to function in their natural cycles—of what in some way makes existence better for someone or something, then that design is good design, no matter what it looks like. If it’s not hiding something from you, not convincing you to buy things you don’t need, if it goes with the grain and not against it, then it’s good design.

Some products are in the enviable position of mending the split between formally good and ethically good: they’re aesthetically pleasing and they make life better. They may be tiny (like Earth Rated’s Dispenser of Dog Waste Poop Bags, a cute little pod that makes one’s civic duty a designed experience) or they may be huge, like Capitol Hill’s Bullitt Center, which is fabulous-looking and green as heck.

A company doesn’t have to fly the flag of social consciousness in order to be a purveyor of good design. The Munro shoes I wear are the most durable, comfortable shoes I have ever worn. They were made in America by people paid a living wage. Because Munros wear so well, I don’t buy new shoes every year, which keeps a lot of cheap shoes out of the landfill. Did Munro set out to “do good” by making black shoes? I doubt it. They just make good shoes and treat their employees fairly. 

Good design—the kind that is aesthetically and ethically good— does not have to be marketed as such. Beware the greenwasher. A really excellent pig needs no lipstick.

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On Compost and Rose

Much of what my grandmother knew instinctively-- and taught us all instinctively--our culture suddenly realizes it must rediscover. She was not a naturalist or a flower-child, just a normal person, a normal woman of her era who understood where she fit in. Everything was a part of everything else. The compost fed the rose. She treated Nature in the same way that she treated people. They had their ups and downs, just like relationships with people do, but it was a relationship based on respect. That's just the way she thought, and how the people who had reared her had thought. Was she radical? No. Just measured--just related to her surroundings.

I recently came upon the work of Murray Bookchin, a wild-eyed eco-revolutionary of the Rachel Carson era. “The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital," said Bookchin. His argument was that most of the activities that consume energy and destroy the environment are senseless because they contribute little to quality of life and well being. Is this radical? Thought to be. So radical that these ideas split the American Green Movement right in half.

But the plunder of the spirit being tied to the plunder of the earth was completely obvious--wordlessly obvious-- to my grandmother, whose own grandfather (now we're going back to before the American Civil War) was known around Gaffney for letting a third of his land lie fallow every growing season. He didn't believe in using the new fertilizers, he didn't believe in beating the soil into submission and for this reason he missed out on a third more revenue every summer. Radically stick-in-the-mud? Or forward thinking?

Bookchin, the radical Marxist, said that the function of work is to legitimize, even create, hierarchy. He believed that understanding the transformation of organic into hierarchical societies is crucial to finding a way forward. I'd say that understanding that transformation is crucial to finding our way backward--back to the cyclic rather than the one-off, back to the sustainable rather than the pillaged-- back to the dreams of the lover rather than those of the rapist.

Swimming to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

As you know, Burma is the country currently known as Myanmar. It is called Myanmar right now because its military dictatorship knows that you associate the word "Burma" with the words "human rights abuses," and so, in a nice branding coup, they changed the name a few years back. Now if you see "Made in Myanmar" on a sweatshirt you're buying, well-- where the heck is that and who cares? Which is what they want. I needed to say this first, so you'd be reminded about Myanmar. But this post is really about something else.

It is hard to think that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the jailed pro-democracy leader who has been living under house arrest for fourteen years in Burma, faces a sentence of five years in a disgusting Myanmar prison because a sprightly young American named John Yettaw decided what a fine thing it would be to swim across the lake that acts as a moat to keep people away from her. True, he was arrested, too. But I have little pity for him.

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So Pete Upstairs went in to have another part of his tongue removed but before he went he asked me to take care of his pet rats while he was gone. Since I live downstairs and we're friends, he was counting on me to do it.

Now. I am not what you would call an ardent lover of All Things Great and Small. As a matter of fact, I never would have even had a dog, had she not been a border collie, cut me out and herded me into doing it. Never had a guinea pig when young. Sneeze near cats. And of course, spending many years in Manhattan watching rats scurry around the subway tracks on 34th Street did not do much to endear rodents to me.

So of course I said enthusiastically that I’d be glad to take care of the rats, those cute little guys, considering the poor man was losing another significant piece of his tongue, and because he is such an amazingly nice guy and on his own and everything and so he gave me various keys and the next day he went, had the cancer removed and lay there for a week while I took care of the rats.

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Appreciating Consequence

I'm snowbound on a small island. In New York this snow would have been plowed and dumped in the river by lunchtime on the day it fell, and nary a reservation at Nobu cancelled. Not here. No, here in the land of the hearty Northwesterner, land of anorak and parka, land of flannel and technical fabric, we have buses sliding down slight inclines. We have cars without snowtires trying to make it up hills, the drivers' faces cartoons of surprise at sliding backward.

Seattle is caught unprepared for this snow. We don't know what to do with it. I've been in my house for a week. Cabin fever doesn't do the feeling justice. There's just so long that you can obsess about folding fresh sheets. Sooner or later you are forced to think, and sometimes those thoughts are not cheery. Cheery and festive as I love to be, sometimes I think thoughts that are not popular. They are not popular because they do not point the way to a cheery, festive future. They are warning thoughts.

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