While the worlds of economic policy and design are often at odds, last year's “Archtober” in New York and “Beijing Design Week” on the opposite side of the globe are encouraging signs that the distance between these ideas is rightly closing. Design and economics are, in fact, wholly intertwined. Here in the West, Archtober is a month of lectures, tours, and other events that celebrate the role and importance of architecture in the life of New York City. In contrast, in China, Beijing Design Week highlights architectural talent—both emerging and established. In both cases, the events are geared to connect design innovation with economic vitality. In introducing last year’s Archtober, AIA NY president Joseph Alioto proclaimed New York the center of American design and suggested that it “demonstrates this sector’s powerful economic impact and draws global attention to one of New York’s leading exports.” Beijing Design Week was supported and endorsed by Chinese government officials and took place during Golden Week, when the country’s founding is celebrated nationally. Clearly, the organizers of both recognize the fiscal and commercial power of architecture and design.
It wasn’t so long ago when discussions of design and economy never intersected in any meaningful way. Vigorous building is an engine for growth and provides the very infrastructure for the economy to operate, yet national discourse rarely acknowledges the integral importance of design and construction to economic competitiveness. Despite its critical role in providing jobs, there is no government building policy, nor is the industry represented meaningfully at the highest levels of government here in the United States. As the majority of the world’s population moves into cities—and the buildings in those cities are largely responsible for our energy and carbon challenges—the need to understand, celebrate, and encourage design is critical, and not just as an employment avenue for architects and engineers.
Six years ago, China’s president Hu Jintao declared that he wanted to see the Chinese economy move from “made in China” to “designed in China.” This was a prescient observation given that 2006 was before the peak of China’s power as a manufacturing center and long before Chinese manufacturing jobs began to move to cheaper locations in Southeast Asia. Increasing design and innovation capabilities is now a well-understood strategy for supporting a maturing economy where the workforce is increasingly educated and middle-class. It is certainly heartening to see architecture and design begin to take the stage along with iPads and apps as a potent vector for moving the economic needle. In many ways, New York sees itself as the “Silicon Valley” of U.S. Design, and events that celebrate the value of design (i.e. Archtober) engage the public—and the folks who are elected by them—in that dialogue.
Beyond the publicity and any political hype, though, the immediate benefits to designers from these events are apparent. For example, according to the Wall Street Journal, last year’s Beijing Design Week generated almost $25 million in direct business to China’s emerging design community along with tremendous exposure to boot. When “Designed in China” is stated government policy, wallets are enlarged. But even more significantly, the Chinese want to establish a “creative class” that they believe is critical to establishing themselves as both an intellectual and economic superpower. As hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens move to their cities, that creative class will be largely responsible for making the world in which future China will live. That good design is starting to become government policy is only logical—and cause for optimism about our global future.
But how do we take the idea of Archtober and Beijing Design Week—and their real implications for cities and the economy—and scale it worldwide? We need to meet at the intersection of the New York and Beijing ideas, highlighting and celebrating the importance of architecture and design in concert with a government that understands and supports its economic, environmental, and societal relevance. This means acknowledging architecture and design with more than just marketing, and instead with policy and leadership at an international scale. These celebrations offer an interesting “chicken-and-egg” conundrum: were they so successful because the importance of architecture is well appreciated in New York and Beijing, or did the events further the dialogue? I suspect that the precedent condition of the former may well have helped the latter, and made a dialogue about architecture rise ever so slightly in the consciousness of the city. For instance, the world’s architects love to build in New York when they can, and most of my students aspire to practice there after graduation. There’s no architecture “branding” problem there. But if Archtober/Design Week were happening simultaneously in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Sao Paolo, and—perhaps most importantly—Washington all at the same time, the public and elected officials together could truly appreciate why building is so important to the future of our cities as well as to domestic and global economic vitality.
To be clear, however, I am not advocating for the creation of some sort of “architectural prom committee” for the world’s cities. Too often, architects plead to be understood and appreciated without constructing an argument about the importance of their work to the general public, which overwhelmingly neither understands, considers, nor (dare I say) appreciates good design. Instead, to scale “International Design Week” requires that the architecture and design community build a compelling case for the central role of design, architecture, and building in driving the economy, competitiveness, and protecting the environment. In the age of digital representation, big data computational analysis, and the increasing ability to predict and measure the behavior of design before it is built, this argument is far easier to make than it might have been even five years ago. Excellent design can be the result, rather than the exclusive objective, of that work. Perhaps someday architects can look forward to an “International Archtober” as a celebration of design’s central role in improving the world’s environment, economy, and the lives of its citizens.