August 28th, 2015

David Stairs

Whenever visiting Portland, Oregon I am always struck by the huge number of bicyclists— aggressive, self-righteous, ubiquitous. No matter that many of them weren’t even born yet when I was bike commuting— it’s great to see so many! But there is another meme at work here. I am a Prius owner, but I’ve never been anywhere that has more Priuses per capita, and if such a place exists I’d be surprised.


Priuses on the Toyota lot awaiting distribution

Prius has had a long developmental trajectory on the road to becoming the world’s favorite hybrid. Introduced in 1997 and now in its fourth generation, it took over a decade for Toyota to reach the one million in Prius sales mark (2008). It would be an exaggeration to imply that the car has a nationwide following. In the horsepower-hungry midwest, muscle cars and big pick-ups are the norm. But in urban settings where standing traffic and bumper-to-bumper freeway scenes are common, the Prius more than holds its own.

Unfortunately, while the air may be cleaner and the national trade balance in oil (not cars— all Priuses are made in Japan) better as a result, larger numbers of hybrids do not translate into less gridlock. Backed-up traffic in the Rose City is reaching epic proportions.

Arterials, like north-south I-5, or east-west I-84, are clogged every morning and evening in a typically American version of commuting psychosis. Even I-205, which was a late addition, built to alleviate traffic and encircle Portland to the south and east, has fallen to demon gridlock.


Even Priuses can’t relieve overcrowding

This affliction is no fault of anyone in particular, not the men who planned the system in the ’50s, and certainly not of Toyota which, if anybody, has done its fair share to alleviate some of the disadvantages of cars in an urban setting. One might as well blame Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein for creating Portlandia, their 22-minute satire that has done much to draw attention to “America’s Most Livable City.”

The truth is that Portland gets many things right. In an initiative/right-to-die/weed friendly state like Oregon, one encounters a good deal of independence. This, plus emphasis on the environment— Portland buses run on biodiesel and garbage trucks on natural gas, and its lightrail system is second to none— draws thousands of transplants to the Beaver State each year. But, while population grows, Oregon is also a place with no major industrial base. Neither mining nor wood products play a significant role in the state’s economy any longer and, while companies like Nike house their corporate HQ in Portland, all manufacturing is done overseas.


Environment plays well in PDX, even when the claim is somewhat absurd

This results in an economy that is heavy on service and supportive of entrepreneurism. It’s not a coincidence that Portland has become the epicenter of not only coffee and beer culture, but of a revolution in food preparation and eating. Food trucks have, in many places, converted empty lots from eyesores to lively gathering places. And retail has been invigorated. A casual stroll down SE Hawthorne Boulevard on a Sunday afternoon reveals the fact that almost any idea can be transformed into a retail outlet, be it beer growlers or gourmet donuts.

In keeping with this tendency toward independence, Portland also supports a thriving “hand made” culture. In fact, Tender Loving Empire, which specializes in a combination of home grown music and hand-made objects, features work from my daughter Maya’s Frankie & Coco line of custom-made bags and purses.

The fundamental cause of heavy traffic and commercial rejuvenation is population density, and Portland is struggling mightily to come to terms with it. Many areas feature historic houses, like this Victorian located in the Boise-Elliot neighborhood.


The Henry C. Keck House, located at 53 NE Thompson St., a structure on the National Historic Register

But residential density means many houses are jammed close together on too small lots…

Which can result in disaster in the event of fire.


Adjacent properties destroyed by fire

Then there’s the matter of development vs. redevelopment. In some neighborhoods old houses are demolished and replaced by new in-fill. If the structure is limited to two stories this is not always offensive. The problem is, in many areas large multi-story structures are being built with little consideration for surrounding architecture. These tend to be apartments, or condos, and add to the already critical shortage of on-street parking.

In Irvington, neighbors are resisting such incursions. Homeowners who object to plans to replace a former filling station with an eight-story multiplex have started a movement to prevent it. Yard signs convey the general sentiment in support of existing structures.

As I wrote just one year ago, whether Portlanders are building a brave new world or loving their environment to death remains to be seen. For the moment, hordes of foodies, fashionistas, and hipsters— not to forget Prius owners or cyclists, have created an interesting if not always sustainable mix. One can only hope the sheen lasts long enough to benefit future generations.


Fashionistas in training, Coco and Frankie, with Dad Micah

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

July 24th, 2015

David Stairs


Ankole cattle grazing on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda

First of all, this story has nothing to do with cattle, but everything to do with wealth and its distribution.

In December 2012 I talked a group of students into helping me attempt to raise money online for an African NGO run by an amazing friend of mine. It wasn’t an easy sell. These were seniors, and they had their own idea about how to design their thesis exhibition. But I was tenacious, I kept coming back at them, and it didn’t hurt that the professionals they spoke with at a regional design studio told them they’d be foolish to pass up the opportunity.

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June 2nd, 2015

Philip Borkowski

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of published Masters theses that started last year with Jesse McClain’s Actively. Many thanks to Wes Janz for making it possible.


image: Wes Janz

Never before has human creation effected the world as much as it does today. While living next to a large construction site, I started to observe the frequency with which a 40-yard dumpster was being filled with what many people may consider waste. Here in the United States, we live in a throw-away society, but it has not always been this way nor is it this way in many other societies. “Up until the nineteenth century, recycling architectural elements from old buildings was normal all over the world. In other places around the world it is an integral part of their society.” (Bahamón 84) Today, extreme recycling still takes place in developing countries, not as an environmentally conscious decision, but as a way of life. We can learn from these developing countries.

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May 2nd, 2015

David Stairs

The discussion in my Junior-year studio at this week’s critique swirled around the value of Pinterest, that irrepressible repository of everything how-to-do-it. Is it a valuable source of inspiration, or a struggling student’s crutch? Is it gender specific, a creative and social outlet for stay-at-home moms, or does it apply to the testosterone set as well? One young man in the class thought it was not strictly for women, but then quickly clarified that he does not use it himself. This disagreement between me and some of my students was good natured, but it masked a deeper division than the usual generational gap.


Graphic by Marcello Duhalde found on Google

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April 4th, 2015

David Stairs

There are two or three things graphic designers are especially keen about. They like to make logos: Researching, executing, and branding a marque will cause most self-respecting designer’s hearts to flutter. They like to talk about type: Obsessing about letterform and the way it looks on the page and interacts with images is second nature to them. And they like to illustrate data: In fact, they have an almost childish glee for finding ways to interpret statistics in a playful manner. But designers are not the only ones who represent data, and because it is not their exclusive domain they need to better understand why this is so.

A Punnett square, demonstrating heritability of dominant and recessive characteristics after Mendel.

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March 1st, 2015

Victor Margolin

Before I go any further, I must confess that I am a man d’un certain age. Therefore my responses to new technology are selective and generational. I still favor transactions with other human beings over those with machines. When I was a boy in the early 1950s, almost all transactions were between one human being and another. The one exception for me was the gumball machine at the candy store around the corner from my apartment building in Washington D.C. I didn’t mind the absence of a live vendor in order to make my purchase. In fact, it was something of a novelty to put a penny in the machine and get a large colored gumball in return.

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February 1st, 2015

David Stairs

I.

I once founded a town. It’s in the high desert about twenty miles outside of Bend, Oregon overlooking the magnificent Three Sisters Wilderness off in the distance to the west. I called the town Denial. At the time only two other people volunteered to live there, hence the sign. But many more would have qualified to be living in Denial.

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January 1st, 2015

David Stairs

Homo faber, humankind the maker, seems destined to design itself right out of a world.


MacGyver packin’

Unlike pharmacology, or agriculture, technology has a weak review process for testing its effects on the natural environment. We have user testing, of course, the way we discover what will make a product or service dangerous or addictive. And there are certainly safety regulations, but they often are 50 years out of date. Do you imagine Henry Ford thought much about crash-test dummies? Or John D. Rockefeller about climate change?

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November 30th, 2014

David Stairs

Ah, autumn.

A crispness is in the air. The delectable smell of woodsmoke, the warm sun burnishing a hundred shades of orange, the tang of fresh cider at the orchard, or a field full of pumpkins at sunset. Into this idyll clomp the Boys of Autumn toting the ultimate example of techno-idiocy: leaf blowers.


The Boys of Autumn

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October 31st, 2014

David Stairs

As a person who answers a lot of mail inquiring about socially responsible design internship options, a recent Skype conversation with some grad architecture students at Ball State University got me to dusting off some serious criticism of the “faux humanitarianism” of do-gooder design.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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