How We Shape Buildings, and How They Shape Us
Launching Plans in Perspective.
~1,100 words, a six-minute read
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” I lost count of how many times I’ve heard architects reference that saying by Winston Churchill. But if Churchill was right, the provocative statement raises more questions than answers. How the hell do buildings shape us, exactly?
Plans in Perspective aims to unpack the yin-yang relationship between society and buildings by exploring a wide range of issues in the built environment through writing and other kinds of creative output. In part, the goal is to write for students and professionals in fields like architecture and urban planning who (I hope) will naturally gravitate to content like this. On the other hand, this Substack aims to be accessible and readable to anyone even remotely interested in these matters, regardless of field. Or for that matter, age, experience, # of diplomas, or whether you even have a “field”. Awaken your inner architecture & urban planning nerd!
Thanks for reading Plans in Perspective! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
My own background is in fact as an architect and urban planner. So, I’ve come to understand how things are shaped through drawings, spreadsheets, reports, slide decks, and technical things like “transmittals”. In the industry, the instructions for how to build something are called plans. Plans can take a staggering diversity of formats. The first plan I drew was of a hypothetical, locationless 100-hole golf course. Crayons featured. 20 years later in an architecture firm in Boston, I worked on technical plan sets that were thousands of pages long. And so heavy we’d schlep them around on dollies sometimes. Those plans instructed how to build a museum in Denver. Then when I moved into urban planning, I learned about regional plans and strategic plans and comprehensive plans and neighborhood plans and the ultimate pinnacle of all consulting contracts: the strategic framework concept plan. If you add it up, billions of dollars in annual revenue accrue to architecture and planning and consulting companies making these sorts of things. And billions more taxpayer dollars go to governments to regulate the outcomes of plans.
But people don’t see the world as an ensemble of plans. Each of us sees the world in perspective.
All of this strikes me as important in a post-covid, geopolitically mercurial world. A world where AI and Human-I have an increasingly uneasy coexistence. (A robot did not and will not write for this Substack.) Where our relationship with the atmosphere is becoming increasingly problematic. Insert your contemporary-nation/world-crisis/opportunity here.
Incidentally, “perspective” is also a drawing type taught worldwide in first semester architecture programs. It differs from other drawings like axonometric (axon for short) that show an object's dimensions and shape in objective reality. For that matter, perspective drawings also differ from floor plans, which orthographically project the intersection of matter and a horizontal plane. By contrast, a perspective drawing shows how something looks to a person. The classic example is how parallel train tracks don’t appear parallel but are perceived to converge like in a super skinny, tall triangle.
If you are an architect or a planner, you probably either smiled or rolled your eyes at that introductory drawing lesson. But let’s consider the axonometric / perspective dichotomy in the context of something like CityLab, the Bloomberg owned media company that writes about issues ostensibly related to, well, cities. I’ve always found it a little unsettling that the second half of the name is root to the word “laboratory”, which seems to evoke an image of a city that experts peer into from above; curious, well-intentioned technocrats with a god-like view of a place rendered in axon. On the other hand, architecture critic Chris Hawthorne used to have great perspectives in his articles for the LA Times before he was appointed Chief Design Officer for the City and promptly stopped being a journalist. I’m not worthy of comparison to Hawthorne by any stretch but I do think someone should try and pick up where he left off.
Like I wrote in the intro, to the best of my ability I hope to make this accessible and interesting for a diverse audience. This in part because I’ve noticed an abundance of industry specific jargon around adjectified cities and arduous academic philosophy in journals or magazines that may in fact be quite interesting but is not widely understood because it’s so damn complicated. That’s fine, we need that stuff. It should not be canceled or anything crazy like that. I read CityLab right with the rest of ‘em. That said, my intention with this platform is to explore subjects with a different approach. Sometimes it will include more academically-leaning pieces, like the one I’m working on now about an interesting type of space called a “city room” in Singapore. Other posts will be far less scholarly.
The medium-term goal is to investigate issues in the American context. I’m living in Singapore until autumn 2022 so initial posts will mostly be about that fascinating tropical city-island-nation. Another interest I want to explore with this Substack is the recent federal infrastructure spending in the U.S., through the lens of tangible projects that emerge from this funding. Regardless of how you may align politically, the bill passed and I think we all share an interest in seeing these trillions of dollars well spent. (What does “well spent” mean to you? Share in the comments below!) Despite what some are suggesting, I suspect it will lead to more than (needed) pothole repair. But will it be as transformative as it was branded to be? Stay tuned.
Time will tell where this ultimately goes. Time, and more writing, reading, conversations, observations, interviews, travels, book reviews, and more. I hope to translate all sorts of things into digestible, enjoyable, and maybe sometimes funny pieces. Again, my goal is to satiate your inner architecture/planning nerd. So that you can impress your friends and family at the next barbeque with new knowledge!
If you’ve made it this far, thank you! Please consider subscribing. It’s all free, for now. My grant in Singapore is taxpayer funded, so the way I see it is if you live in the U.S.A., I’m already taking your hard-earned money.
Please also always feel free to engage thoughtfully in the comments. Initial feedback on this post suggested outlining some rules of engagement. I’m hesitant to do that just yet, other than to say please feel free to share anything on your mind related to the posts. (Including this one!) This should go without my saying so, but civil disagreement (or agreement) and thoughtful comments are encouraged while incivility will not be tolerated. I will be the sole arbiter of decisions to remove or ban. I will try to exercise reasonable judgment.
Thank you for going on this journey with me. I hope together we can shape each other's perspective.
P.S. - I believe you have to subscribe to comment.
Edit (April 24, 2022): A short section that indicated possible ideas for future articles has been removed. In retrospect, this list was premature, and more constraining than catalyzing. I now have my own list, but it changes constantly, and I simply sleep better if it stays private!!
© 2022 James Carrico