A Little Guerilla Philosophy . . .

As this blog gets off the ground, I want to take opportunity to explore some of the ideas that have been kicking around in the back of my head for the last few years.  Sometimes I'm so eager to get projects done that I don't take the time to formalize the thinking behind them.  I'm no professor, but I've picked up some bits and pieces over time, and it's been helpful to me to sort through my own brain by writing them down.  So, here is the first of what may be a recurring series of posts on guerilla design thinking and design/build philosophy.

My education as a designer and craftsman has followed two parallel, and equally important, tracks: the academic study of design and the practical building arts.  In my mind, they have become so intertwined as to be inseparable.  Since the creation of formal design disciplines several centuries ago, specialization has progressively split the fields into smaller and smaller subdivisions.  In medieval times, architects were usually also engineers and builders.  Today, we have a wide range of professions, each with a narrow scope, that combine to produce buildings and objects.  While this process has made our buildings, cars, and furniture much safer, stronger, and accessible, it has also created a fault line between those who design and those who make.  We tend, as a culture, to regard the former as intellectually superior and the latter as somehow mentally lacking, denying the knowledge that they have accumulated in their hands.

My first design/build project, Virginia Tech's Rammed Earth House.
I participated in my third year studio, 2004-05.

Design/build is not a process that is equally applicable to all situations. Technically sophisticated products, structurally complex buildings, and projects much above the scale of a single-family home are beyond the scope of the craft-based design/build methodology.  However, the projects in this blog, and the thought behind them, are generally concerned with re-centering how we create and acquire the objects that populate our daily life.  Making things teaches us lessons that are impossible to learn in the paper/pixel realm.  I have sat on chairs that I have built, only to have them splinter underneath my (modest) weight.  I have burned out tools, botched welds, burst pipes, and bled like a stuck pig.  All of these mistakes were the result of things I didn’t, or couldn’t, anticipate in the design stage, and they are now stored in my head and my hands.  

My first attempt at the Rubber Hose Chair.

Scars non-withstanding, I still have all my fingers, which is a victory in and of itself.
For the individual, working at a human scale, design/build is the ideal method for rapidly prototyping, testing ideas, and making objects of lasting value.  The next conversation concerns means.  We live in a modern, global, economy that is reliant on cheap raw materials, cheap energy, and cheap human capital to maintain the machinery of our consumer-industrial complex.  It is a system predicated on constant, linear growth, ad infinitum.  It is a system that is inherently unsustainable and unstable.  The Great Recession was part of the first spasms of a deep, inevitable realignment of priorities in all sectors of the economy.

Post World War II, the Western economy gradually settled into a pattern that has been spurred along by any number of innovations, from the invention of containerized shipping to the consolidation of Europe’s economies under a single currency.  The manufacture of goods has been outsourced to countries with less concern about the human and environmental costs of industrial processes.  Those goods are sluiced across the world’s oceans and into our homes, lubricated by inexpensive oil, cheap credit, and the computerized transit of money across international borders.  The housing bubble in America and parts of Europe exposed the fragility of all this activity, as a collapse in the wealth of individuals, and to a certain extent, whole countries, locked up the movement of credit.  Without the ability to borrow, spending fell off, and everything began to grind to a halt.  As energy prices inexorably rise, this spend-ship-borrow-spend-ship cycle is going to become increasingly unsustainable.  In little more than a century, we will have largely exhausted both the supply of oil and the planet’s ability to bear the consequences of burning fossil fuels. 

Raw materials.
Sometimes, the rising tide of bad news is enough to give me a wicked case of heartburn, worrying about the world that my nieces and nephews will inherit.  But, I always remind myself, history is full of innovations spurred by great disruptions. The Great Recession has created an opening for the guerilla designer, who mines the byproducts of the consumer-industrial complex for raw material; open-sources knowledge with the help of cheap, ubiquitous technology; goes off-the-grid and underground, combining analog techniques and digital speed to build a new, sustainable design future.