September 23rd, 2014

David Stairs

I grew up in a subdivision of a crossroads-small town named Mattydale, N.Y. In the early 20th century the area had been comprised of dairy and vegetable farms that supplied the city of Syracuse. In the 1920s the farmers sold out, and from then through the 1950s suburbia sprouted where carrots and cabbages once had grown. The earlier developments were diverse, with homes of various ages occupying the same block. Across from my parent’s house, built in 1926, was a Cape Cod constructed in the ’50s, itself sitting on land that once was a chicken farm adjoining the farm house next door.

In my early college days I knew friends who had grown up in Levittown, N.Y. I didn’t think about it much at first, I mean, what’s in a name? Only later, when I came to know why Levittown existed did I begin to question its sanity. The late ’40’s were all about developing affordable living spaces for returning GIs and the families they would raise. John Entenza’s Case Study House project in California was one approach, small, select, specially designed. Levittown, the mass-produced racially discriminatory version, was another. Both projects were constructed upon a concrete slab using pre-fab materials, but there the similarities ended.


Rapid tear down of existing structure in early June…

What got me thinking about quick-and-dirty design was some of the activity in the town where I currently live. Mt. Pleasant, Michigan is a college town, subject to the ebb and flow of large numbers of nomadic students. As the university has grown, so has the community, the two being fairly interdependent. Lots of old residential housing near campus has been converted to student use and, over the years, some of these structures have gotten a little rough.


…in this case an old brick house

A local builder has taken it upon himself to restructure these neighborhoods. Rezoned from residential to multiple use in the 1980s, several recent projects have been approved that remove old houses and substitute for them with pre-fab replacements. This process is very rapid. A vintage house, even a brick one, can be torn down in a couple of days and be built over and reoccupied within eight weeks.


By August, a fully occupied cookie-cutter replacement

In its heyday, Levittown added 30 houses per day. Nothing like that is happening here. But the formal mediocrity, and rapid construction techniques— every house is raised upon a pre-fab tilt-up concrete slab basement— results in the loss of architectural diversity, replaced by predictable variation in surface texture and exterior ornament.


Whole blocks have been “terraformed” in this manner

This development approach is being pursued in other parts of town with a totally different end result. In areas outside the city limits and, therefore, beyond taxation, local professionals are erecting office parks. One particular project specializes in medical offices. These structures, one story brick facades with peaked, shingled roofs surrounded by parking lots and cheap landscaping, are representative of rampant design banality. They suck tenants out of previously occupied offices, creating a critical mass of mediocrity that can best be described by classic theories of sprawl.


Sub-urban professional plazas have conceptually much in common with the rapid replacement houses

The economic forces that result in the mushrooming of these developments, professional overcrowding, aging infrastructure, and the desire to own one’s own building, are not different from the factors that motivated the Case Study House project, but the results are distinctly different. Where the Case Study Houses were designed by people like Charles Eames and Richard Neutra, the structures I’ve described are designed by a latter-day Alfred Levitt— cheap, yes, by virtue of their low-end materials. And cheaper still, by virtue of their low-end design qualities. It’s strictly Lowest Common Denominator architecture.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project.

August 27th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I like to go to a café in the morning to read the paper before I start work. I also enjoy meeting friends and colleagues in cafes. For some time, the Starbucks in my Chicago neighborhood was my choice for reading the paper and a Caribou Coffee a few blocks north of my home was the place where I chose to meet colleagues and friends. The reason for the distinction is that the Starbucks is designated as a high volume take out store with minimal seating, while the Caribou Coffee, now closed and soon to reopen as Peet’s Coffee, had better seating options for meeting others.

Read the rest of this entry »

July 22nd, 2014

The following is excerpted from Jesse McClain’s 2014 Master’s thesis—Ed.

Jesse McClain

Figure 1: Images from top to bottom: Top two images – Anawalt strip mining site in Southern West Virginia. Bottom image: Town of Keystone, West Virginia, near the city of Welch, WV. Photos: Jesse McClain.

SITE CONTEXT AND DOCUMENTATION

Southern West Virginia and Western North Dakota were both visited as part of the research process. These sites were chosen due to their similar connections with the energy industry and also their polar opposites in terms of economic prosperity. Welch, West Virginia is a small town which used to be called “Little New York” in the early 1900s. It was the city at the hub of the world’s first “billion dollar coalfield” and provided many of the area’s residents with a healthy and even prosperous income. Now it is deteriorating as the powerful strip-mining companies replace humans with machines and blow the tops off nearby mountains. Long-time Welch resident, Hilda Mitros, details accounts of personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the coal companies. She talks about gas and water explosions in and near her home as the earth becomes unstable with directional drilling and diverted water flow. Floods and sinkholes are commonplace in an area which is sacrificed for it’s fossil fuels. Hilda also reports that the decline in the economic and environmental health of the region has been accompanied by an influx of drugs and political buy-offs. She offers stories of attempts by community members to stand against the development of a major dumping site for disposal of out of state waste. The community was initially able to rally and protest this intervention but eventually, leaders were swayed through high pressure negotiation and shadowy bribery tactics. Hilda used to run a kitchen and bar and she remembers when the times were good and people prospered in a healthy community. I asked her if anything good was occuring in Welch and she said, “no, there is nothing good happening here.” A place that was once full of vitality and optimism is struggling to see a future that holds a promise of anything other than more destruction and abuse.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 30th, 2014

David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

If you are a white-collar worker making a decent salary, chances are that your paycheck will go directly to your bank so you can access it with a check or a withdrawal slip or draw on it with a credit card or mobile phone payment. There are banks that charge for such accounts, but only usually if the customer’s balance drops below a given amount. In many banks you will get the checking account free, while in some you will even earn a modicum of interest on it.

Read the rest of this entry »

May 10th, 2014

Daniel Drennan


“Believe in stone and survive.”

Framework

From the Declaration of the Palestinian People during the first intifada in 1987:

We will no longer be a subject people. If you order us to our camps, we will roam the countryside. Dig up our soil and bury us alive in it if you will. If you direct us to work in your factories, we will confine ourselves to our homes. Herd us into concentration camps if you will. If you instruct us to buy your produce and your products, we will grow and make our own.

Read the rest of this entry »

April 19th, 2014

David Stairs

At 10:02am on Saturday, February 23, 2014 I officially became old.


X-ray of surgical plate to correct a comminuted fracture of my right distal radius

As I left my house to take my dog Asali for a walk I noted that the front steps were blocked by snow. I’d been working hard throughout an unusually harsh winter to keep them clear, but a recent thaw— it had been 48°F the previous day— had caused snow to slide off the porch roof and pile on the steps.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

Read the rest of this entry »

February 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 17th, 2014

Vassiliki Giannopoulos
National Design Awards
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128

Dear Ms. Giannopoulos,

Regarding your December 23rd email notifying us that Designers Without Borders has been nominated for the 2014 National Design Awards, we have this response.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 1st, 2014

David Stairs

An admission of personal weakness is not always a bad way to start a new year. I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell you a secret: I’m an inveterate maker of lists.

I can’t shop for food without using a list. At night I lie in bed evaluating the past with a list of events. In the morning I often compose an informal list of the days’ forthcoming activities. So, at a time of year when many people are generating lists of resolutions, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the idea for this post presented itself in list form.

Read the rest of this entry »

December 8th, 2013

Victor Margolin

In recent weeks, I have been involved in three chaotic attempts to introduce changes in services that I have come to rely on. These include banking, public transit, and healthcare. The website of Obamacare is not the only evidence of innovative change that is malfunctioning. I would venture to say that a good many if not most of the new services that are being rolled out at a dizzying pace have glitches that range from minor to catastrophic.

Read the rest of this entry »

November 15th, 2013

David Stairs

Ask my Indian friend: Americans are in a coma.

What would evoke such an evaluation? Last year, while I was living in Bangalore, an American friend visited and my son and I met her for lunch. While crossing a busy boulevard she grabbed my arm and said, “I’ll trust you to get me across safely. Yesterday I spent 30 minutes trying to cross MG Road.” At that point I almost became a hazard myself, I was laughing so hard.

Read the rest of this entry »

October 1st, 2013

Cansu Akarsu

During my short career as a designer I have been a true nerd, spending all my free time participating in every workshop and design competition I found from all fields. Life is easy when you are learning, especially when one recognition follows the other, and motivates you to work on anything you love to work on. Still, I realize now that all the competitions, exhibitions, and networking events are far from the real recognition that comes with a village mother sparing the few dollars she earns to buy the product you have designed – this is how one falls in love with social design. Designing in real life and carrying out the process in the field is, on one hand, more frustrating and challenging, and on the other hand it is more meaningful, fun, and provides a unique learning experience.

Read the rest of this entry »

September 1st, 2013

David Stairs

“Tool hedonism is in ascendance.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer

Imagine a world where waste is more significant than thrift, where advertising trumps taste, and where novelty is the be-all end-all of existence. Not hard, is it? You’re living the dream everyday. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 look at the effects of television on society, entertainment came under scrutiny as a real but questionable substitute for public discourse. Had Postman lived long enough, he might have entitled the sequel Designing Ourselves to Death.

Read the rest of this entry »

August 10th, 2013

David Stairs


View from atop the Middle Sister in the west central Oregon Cascades reaches 100 miles north to Mt. Hood.

On a recent drive across country I was thinking about what the land must have looked like two hundred years ago. Lewis and Clark described an “Eden” of endless vistas and limitless game, a land practically untouched by human hand since time immemorial. It must have been an amazing sight.

Read the rest of this entry »

July 13th, 2013

David Stairs


Luco at music camp. I kept the phone.

The campaign began about nine months ago. From the beginning I was the primary target. I never had a chance. It wasn’t even a subtle assault. Mentioned with increasing frequency, insinuated into nearly every conversation, my thirteen year-old son managed to make his desire to have an iPhone known in no uncertain terms.

Read the rest of this entry »