Notes from CUSP

Metropolis Magazine
Notes from CUSP
By Tiffany Meyers, October 2011
“We all come here with a truckload of fears,” shouts Mike Ivers, president of capacity-building organization Goodcity. He’s riling up the crowd for the fourth annual CUSP—a “conference about the design of everything”—created by design firm Smbolic.

And he’s wearing a blindfold. Ivers, a former priest who knows how to raise a roof, shares the stage with a group of young people. Representing his fears, they lead him around, as fears are wont to do, and spin him in discombobulating circles. “Get dizzy at CUSP!” he hollers. His point? Fear is a constant. Learn to use it.

Attendees do have things to fear today. There are the forthcoming breaks, for instance, during which they’ll have to mingle. There’s failure. And success. And then there’s this: In any gathering about social innovation, there’s a chance that all the enthusiasm could snowball into that brand of unchallenged, “designers talking to designers” groupthink about The Power of Design.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the multidisciplinary speakers—many of whom aren’t traditional “designers”—stand before the audience and lay down the truth, in all its glorious nuances and complexity.

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Universal Design at Access Living

Metropolis Magazine
Free Space
By Tiffany Meyers, October 2007

A Chicago nonprofit creates a liberating environment for people with disabilities.

The building that houses Chicago’s Access Living, a nonprofit that provides services for and is staffed by people with disabilities, sits at the architectural intersection of sustainable and universal design—but you wouldn’t know it. And that’s the point. “A basic principle of universal design is that an environment shouldn’t make a person with a disability stand out as different,” says Richard Lehner, a partner at Chicago’s LCM Architects. “So the building itself shouldn’t stand out from any other office building either.”

That was core knowledge for LCM, which specializes in barrier-free spaces, but when Lehner and fellow partner John H. Catlin set out to incorporate green features into their plans–a requisite from the city of Chicago, which sold Access Living the site at a discount-they discovered a powerful synergy between the two design paradigms.

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It’s a Swamp Thing

Metropolis Magazine
It’s a Swamp Thing
By Tiffany Meyers,  September 29, 2010 

An IV drip of espresso would have stimulated the brain less than an afternoon at CUSP, the two-day innovation conference—created and hosted by design firm smbolic—that flipped Chicago’s lid last week.

Swampman kicked it off. Covered in head-to-foot, craft-store moss, former priest Mike Ivers took the stage, complaining of deadlines: “I’m swamped!” he shouted, shedding peat. Ivers, now President of Goodcity, a capacity-building organization for NPOs, proposed his perspective on swamps—or the social, economic and personal problems we’re trying to design ourselves out of. To find our way out of the bog, we have to get lost in it first. “Let us shift the paradigm of life’s swamps, and see them as adventures—frightening and scary, but always exhilarating!”

Halleluiah. Conferrers then dove into the “gumbo mud” and morass of Broken Systems like health care, food distribution, manufacturing and education.

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Creating Green Infrastructures

Metropolis Magazine
Infrastructure Activism
By Tiffany Meyers, November 12, 2009

To introduce his panel at last Thursday’s Infrastructures for Change Workshop, in Chicago, Giles Jacknain reminded us that the ancient Greeks had two words for city. The first was asty—or the inanimate bricks and mortar. The other: polis, or the city as a human entity. The conversation we were about to have, he suggested, was about moving from “asty to polis.”

Jacknain is the founder of the consultancy the Oikos Collective and a faculty member of Archeworks, which sponsored the day-long Infrastructures for Change event. The conference offered a mash-up of bottom-up and top-down projects designed to make cities of the future sustainable “before it’s too late,” as more than one speaker put it. It’s the first in a series of Archeworks workshops that will showcase design alternatives to the waste-intensive, auto-dependent, low-density infrastructures of the 20th century.

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Rural Studio Builds a Tower

Metropolis Magazine
Bird’s-eye View
By Tiffany Meyers | February 2007

Author’s Note: One afternoon, I put in an out-of-the-blue call to the director of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. “Are your students working on any interesting projects?” Were they ever.

At Auburn University’s renowned architecture program, the Rural Studio, students turn trash into treasure as a matter of course. In their buildings for residents of Alabama’s Black Belt, glass bottles become windows and stacked carpet tiles serve as insulated walls. But a recent project–part of the school’s collaboration with Perry County to revitalize a historic park–takes the tradition of using reclaimed materials to vertiginous new heights.

The idea to build a birding tower had been brewing among students since 2001, when the Rural Studio began working with Perry Lakes Park, built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. But it wasn’t until 2004-once separate teams had completed a pavilion, outhouses, and a bridge that provided access to the proposed tower site-that the park was ready for a student team to take on the project.

“We had no plan, so we began walking the trails,” team member Natalie Butts says. “When the bridge team saw us, they said, ‘Hey, have you checked out that abandoned fire tower by the side of the road?'”

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