Small is Beautiful: Stephanie Smith Lecture REVIEWED

Stephanie Smith began her lecture the slide: Small is Beautiful

Her work was devoted to an exploration of architecture and economics on a grassroots level. Smith described how her desire was to change the system within the system. She found that the tendencies of  grassroots communes that had radical ideas about architecture and economics that resisted or disregarded the system, were temporary either purposely or inevitable failure. Smith referenced EF Schumacher of Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Matter, summarizing that everything we are doing economically is wrong.


The Walled City of Kowloon, Hong Kong

The Walled City of Kowloon, Hong Kong

Stephanie Smith went to Harvard, and had Rem Koolhaus as a thesis advisor. She, Koolhaus, and her class went to China to for “Harvard Project on the City”

The Harvard Project on the City, an undertaking which researches the effects of modernization on the contemporary city, was founded upon the realization of a double crisis. The first is the academic and professional bewilderment with urban conditions that seem to defy traditional description: specifically, new forms of accelerated urbanization in developing regions of the world and the maelstrom of redevelopment in existing urban areas. The second crisis is the failure of the design professions to adequately cope with these changes. As cities

modernize beyond professional control, no longer is the architect/urbanist/landscape architect able to sufficiently describe, let alone influence, large areas of the urban realm as even in the recent past. This double crisis of runaway development and disciplinary

paralysis warrants the urgent need to study the evolving agents, relationships and consequences of contemporary urbanization.

Deng Xiaoping, who ruled China between 1981-1989, said “To get rich is glorious”. As a result, an architectural entrepreneurship  and experimental boom had fostered a “Wild West Capitalism” culture. During her time in Dongguan, she observed how the impoverished villages of China were more or less gentrifying cities that were a victim to the 1996 economic crash.  Smith’s Thesis: The local culture moving to South China was more powerful than globalization. Above is the Walled City of Kowloon, which I was referring to in our gigantic discussion group on Wednesday. BLDGBLOG talks about the Walled City of Kowloon and its relationship to the architecture in the video game Guild Wars.

Drop City, (north of Trinidad) Colorado

Drop City, (north of Trinidad), Colorado

Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada

Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada

Smith showed examples of instant cities within the United States post-1960. Drop City, an instant city in Colorado, was conceived by students from University of Kansas and University of Colorado to create a “hippy commune”. Buckminster Fuller even helped develop their solar panels and geodesic dome structures in which they lived in. But the hippies of Drop City failed in every respect- in a good way. They were experiment and creative in their thinking, but found that when the larger system had less accessible things to Drop City under control, like food, they inhabitants left from starvation. Smith was very impressed by the Burning Man festival’s aerial view which gives evidence to how people do not need an architect to create the 2/3 concentric circle urban plan. These people created the city in Nevada in one day with cars and tents and lived in the city for 5 days. While Smith acknowledged that people are fully capable of of developing their own cities and light infrastructure, she still desired to design within the system of self made communes (be it temporary like Drop City, more regulated like Pittsburgh, or suburban like cole-de-sacs.)

Cole-De-Sace Commune, Smith

Cole-De-Sace Commune, Smith

Her project, Cole-de-Sac commune is a project intended to connect the five (give or take) households that face each, whose owners almost never communicate all together. One benefit of Cole-de-Sac commune would be to bring back community to the boundary-crazed culture in which we live in. Her website, wecommune.com is intended for groups of people to have their own personilized Craigslist-esque forum that connects the people in the group together. So, if one household out of five had a lawnmower, everyone in the group could schedule when the lawnmower would be used, thus minimalizing items and maximizing communication.

Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller

Smith talked about Buckminster Fuller and how in the 30’s, he would hang out in bars in Greenwich village, not well dressed, and talk about his crazy ideas. But his projects were never built. Without wearing a suit and talking about his ideas in business meetings, his geodesic dome, it probably would have never been funded. “Buckminster Fuller didn’t sell out but still wore a suit” (Smith).

It was evident from her humanitarian background, architecture background (SCI-arc and Harvard), and business background, the Smith was trying solve all the issues of all three worlds and pander to all three worlds all at once. I was talking to Matt Huber about the 3 way pandering, and he put it quite nicely. He said that if you present yourself just as a humanitarian, the business world will just think you are a hippy and not fund the project. If you present yourself just as a funding person without any further meaningful goals, you will be considered selfish and downright unethical. If you present yourself as just an architect, from a business point of view, it is too expensive, and from a humanitarian point of view, it is probably seen as unnecessary.

The lecture was very appropo to a few points in our discussion of the Silvetti article. From what I gleened from the Stephanie Smith lecture, people know more about architecture than they think. The form that a person chooses from their raw and primal survival instincts can be good enough. But at the same time, Smith was at a crossroad. She talked about letting people have less permanent stuctures, but she also talked about making architecture for people to be comfortable. She saw that communities could be social among themselves, but in more established and permanent boundaries, community was lacking. Where does this leave us as architects? How do we justify ourselves? Can people do it on their own? Is beautiful form and permanently function structures important or is the upper echlon of Western society making it such? Can we do everything? Can we be the humanitarin architect with successfully received and funded projects?

There is much more to talk about, here are my notes from the lecture.

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