Yesterday was the third anniversary of the loss of Steve Jobs, and to this day, most people completely miss his biggest contribution: the enabling of new living traditions where there had been none before. Much like the way Gizmo Green dominates green building conversations, almost all stories about Steve focus on the technical side of his brilliance. But if you go back and read what he actually said, it’s clear that one of his core motivations was to allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
There’s an apparent disconnect between what Steve did and what a few of us are trying to do for sustainability that actually isn’t a disconnect at all. Steve built powerful tools without knowing everything that people would do with them. He had some ideas, to be sure, but there’s no doubt that he took delight in people coming up with uses he never considered. He famously said that a Mac is a “bicycle for your brain,” because bicycles transform humans from one of the most inefficient species at travel to one more efficient than all but a few species such as condors. Steve didn’t need to know where you would go with your bike in order to design the bicycle/Mac… he just needed to design it to make you more effective.
The Original Green is sustainability built upon an operating system of living traditions, and it’s what kept humanity alive for almost all of human history. We’re at a strange and rare point in history where the living traditions for building sustainable places and buildings have died almost everywhere on earth, beginning in the early 20th Century. And so there is much confusion about the nature of living traditions, and whether they can even exist at all today.
News flash… they can and do exist. The blogosphere is a vibrant living tradition that sprang up in just the last decade, with millions participating and hundreds of millions (or more) reading their work. So there’s no doubt they work well today, even if architecture and urbanism aren’t reaping their benefits yet.
Part of the resistance in architecture stems from rejection of things before our time because of the need to do transgressional work. This prejudices architecture against things that have long been proven to work, which is where new living traditions probably need to begin. The other part is a misunderstanding of how the process works because most of us have never seen them work in architecture or urbanism. The illustration above shows how it works.
The worker in the illustration is like the Original Green itself… the intelligence behind sustainable places and buildings. Living traditions are similar to the tool (or operating system) wielded by the worker. The products created are the built artifacts of places and buildings.
Problem is, architects tend to confuse the artifacts with the worker. An intelligent worker can build different things tomorrow from what is built today. Just because we begin with artifacts long proven to work doesn’t mean we won’t be producing better artifacts tomorrow. As a matter of fact, a living tradition is always learning because the heartbeat of a living tradition is four simple words: “we do this because…” Basing design on principles in this way, rather than style, means that everyone is allowed to think again, and that what we build tomorrow has the hope of being better than what we build today.
The term I use to describe a building or place that is flexible enough to be used for possibilities other than those explicitly designed is "affordance". Great examples would be digital graffiti at Alys Beach, or the gravel parking lot at Seaside's Motor Court Inn hosting a wedding reception.