Design for the Soul

Bangkok Airport, exteriorLast month, I talked about what the future needs from us. One of the things I mentioned was better governance. I suspect there’s no actual link, but people seem to be arguing for better governance, not only in Tahrir square but other places as well. This month I decided to focus on one frontier of the brave innovation theme I also think we need: sense-of-wonder design. I’m a science fiction reader, and a lot of the stories I remember best have excellent and fascinating design ideas. Rama. Ringworld. Stillsuits.

A little over a week ago, I passed through two airports where the design actually awed me. For pure architectural prettiness and splashy art, I loved the new Bangkok airport. I could have spent more time there than I actually had. It also felt well-designed for traffic flow and security. Those leaving a plane go one way, and out, never encountering the flow of people going in. A gate area is emptied before it’s re-filled. The picture here is the outside of the airport at about midnight.

On the way back, I did spend a number of hours in the airport in Seoul. Not as flashy or as new, but I’ve never been in an airport that felt so usable. I had a ten hour layover and it was easy to nap, to eat, to shop, to get work done on the internet, and I felt comfortable the whole time. I can’t remember enjoying a layover in an American airport. Ever. Also – totally a side note – I flew Korean Air. I hope I never fly intercontinental on an American airline again – it felt like flying felt twenty years ago. More like a fun adventure more than a dirty foodless snark through the sky.

Last month, I tweeted about a futuristic eco-ark design I came across on CNN. This isn’t real: it’s more like the future we were presented with as kids in the sixties when people would all live in lovely domes under the sea. But I like it, and it garnered a bit of re-tweeting as well, so I think others liked the idea. But concept designs have a chance of becoming real. After all, every design starts there.

Well, that got me poking around for more cool futuristic design, which led me to Vincent Callebaut Architectures. This is the stuff of imagination for sure. It would populate the set of any movie set in a brighter future. In fact, I might have to write a futuristic steampunk story that uses his airships powered by seaweed. I highly recommend visiting his “projects” page just for the gosh-wow you’ll get out of it.

But what about projects that are actually built today? Zaha Hadid (a female Iraqi architect – I love the new global world!) built the Guangzhou Opera House in China, which opens this month. The architecture makes me want to go there. Speaking of China, there is a now a new solar powered building designed a bit like a sundial in Dezhou, China. And yet another building called an EcoARK that is actually built in Taipei – primarily out of recycled plastic bottles.

Of course, there’s more to design than architecture.  Some of the most important designs for the future are about the small things.  Think about electronics and user interface design where the most successful recent big change is the tablet.  Tablets have been failing for years, and then Apple created a useful design by throwing away the pen.

For clean drinking water, there’s the Lifestraw, which was used in the recent Pakistani floods (and is in use daily in a number of developing countries). Not beautiful or gosh-wow, but incredibly functional. There are a number of solar cooker designs. It turns out that burning wood and other materials contributes to global warming. Yes we’ve been doing this a long time, but there are more of us now, and climate change is more death by a thousand cuts than a single-sourced problem. Everything matters. Solar cooking provides a clean way for many populations to cook.

Here are a few other places to peruse interesting design:

Good design creates products and living spaces that interest us, that intrigue us, and that work. There’s a lot of effort going into design for lower energy use, and even for generation. So I’ll leave you with a last link to a bridge design that generates energy. See you next month!


Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

2 thoughts on “Design for the Soul”

  1. Ahem. If you click the link about the Guangzhou Opera House you get “You must be a paid subscriber to The Architects’ Journal to read this article […]”. That said, it wasn’t difficult to get information about that elsewhere 🙂
    Thanks for the interesting links!

  2. I assume that architects will be asked to focus on more technologically specific details so they can have wider usage. Yes, functionality and energy efficiency will be the main requests of investors for the future projects.

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