Housing prototype by SOM, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, winner of a 2017 R&D Award
Carlos Jones Housing prototype by SOM, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, winner of a 2017 R&D Award

Two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with “the way things are going in the United States,” according to a May 2017 Gallup poll. Popular opinion could scarcely be otherwise, with mass and social media serving a 24-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet of apocalyptic drama, some of which can be legitimately tagged as #fakenews, and far too much of which falls under the category of nonfiction.

Nowadays, it appears, exhibiting optimism about the future, or even nostalgia for a moment in the past when the future seemed bright, is to risk being pigeonholed as disingenuous, naive, or downright crazy. Conventional techno-boosterism, as exemplified by the 1960s cartoon series The Jetsons—“the single most important piece of 20th century futurism,” according to Smithsonian magazine—simply doesn’t fly today, at least not without an injection of irony. Is it foolish, then, for architects to offer the possibility of a better life through design?

On the contrary. Of all the important work that the profession needs to do, nothing may be more urgent.

To be clear, when I refer to a “better life through design,” I don’t mean form or style, per se. It’s axiomatic that architects can assemble glass, masonry, and metal into structures of great beauty: Those who do so especially well are the celebrities of the profession. Moving forward, however, success should be defined as much by how buildings work as by how they look—indeed, that is a central purpose of our annual R+D Awards (see page 106): to encourage technological excellence as an essential factor in the overall ethic of design excellence.

The advent of the steel frame inspired Louis Sullivan to coin the famous dictum “form follows function” back in 1896. Today the lieber meister likely would be spellbound by the efficiencies of prefabrication, 3D printing, and mass customization; by the information-processing and -sharing power of cloud computing; and by the revolutionary capacity for buildings to conserve water, produce more energy than they consume, and generally modulate their behavior in response to external stimuli.

“Function,” in other words, encompasses a set of capabilities for the design, construction, and operation of buildings that Sullivan never could have imagined. All together, these technologies constitute an epochal advance in architecture, with transformative potential for society at large.

The profession must continue to put these new advantages to good use, toward the creation of a more sustainable built environment. Professional standards and culture should evolve to focus intensely upon that goal, so that, for instance, every project can pursue the Living Building Challenge, every firm feels ready to adopt the 2030 Challenge, and every practitioner has the opportunity to obtain the necessary skills.

Just as importantly, the profession needs to craft a popular narrative around the possibilities of this revolution in architecture. Instead of merely telling the world that architects are important, we should show the world what architecture is capable of achieving. This a milestone moment. We must lobby, market, and proselytize. We must sell the smart, efficient, living building with passion and persuasiveness. And in so doing, we will point the way to a better future.