Where is the future?
I turned 40 last week. As friends were asking, “How does it feel?” I was reminded of a drawing I did when I was 10 years old. The year was 1980 and I was living in a dense urban block of Philadelphia. I had already been obsessed with Architecture since I was eight, but now at 10, I had asked my parents for some real drawing tools, and they obliged with a set of pens, pencils and paper. I spent hours dreaming up a future of curvy, organic buildings that defied gravity. Ink smudges covered my fingers from sketching visions of the future.
My mother was 40 when I was 10, and I clearly remember thinking how I would turn 40 in the oh-so-distant year 2010. What kind of buildings would we be building in 2010? Surely the world would be unrecognizable. The boxy, lifeless and grey blocks of my neighborhood would be replaced with things I couldn’t even imagine.
Little did I know that we would still be building with skinny sticks of wood, held together by nails and with punched openings for windows. My younger self never would believe how I now spend my time having to convince clients not to put toxic materials in their home or fighting to get a building inspector to approve the use of recycled water.
Would my 10-year-old self be disappointed in how ordinary and un-revolutionary the majority of todays’ buildings really are? Where is the future we expected?
In the 1985 hit film, Back to the Future, the character Marty McFly travels back in time 30 years to find striking differences in fashion, automobiles and music. The buildings, however, were relatively unchanged. If Marty were to go back in time today, he would return to 1980. He would be confused by our skinny ties, long cars and the sounds of Devo, but the buildings would go by unnoticed.
In the sequel, Marty travels ahead 30 years to 2015 to a world full of imagination. The future they present is exciting and very different from the present. But as intriguing as some of their predictions are, they clearly overestimated certain developments.
Is it safe to expect the next five years will bring us hoverboards, self-drying jackets or Mr. Fusion? Not likely. But you aren’t expecting those things. However, the buildings they showed (which don’t seem so far-fetched) are out of reach to us. What slows the innovation in our built environment?
In order to move forward, we must embrace our own long-term economic success. We need to rebuild our aging infrastructure, update those outdated systems and stop clinging to a romantic vision of old Architecture that embodies wasted resources, energy inefficiency and poor quality environments. Let’s rebuild our buildings and save ourselves in the process.
And this is the reason I am so excited about the upcoming West Coast Green Conference. Of the 40 or so conferences I attend each year, it is my favorite if only because of their focus on innovation. (Disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board). Hundreds of the top thinkers in architecture, planning and sustainability join together for three days to share ideas and develop solutions on how to design our future. You can hear more of my thoughts on this here.
Incidentally, the entire Back to the Future Trilogy is available in a special 25th Anniversary Edition on Blu-Ray on October 26th.
West Coast Green Conference
September 30 – October 1, 2010
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