Underwriting Fun

Barbara Knecht's picture

"We underwrite fun," says Naomi McCleary, Manager of arts for the Waitakere City Council, one of the municipalities that make up the Auckland (New Zealand) metropolitan region. She is referring to the practice of involving artists in the thinking and creation of public places, buildings, streets, bridges; they take an equal seat at the table from conception to completion. According to Ms. McCleary, the results are remarkable. Fun is a partner of beauty and happiness, it is a means toward the creation of objects and places that are beautifully usable. Around the world it is possible to find municipalities that are underwriting this kind of fun, but for every found opportunity, we have several more that are lost.

At this moment, I am traveling in Turkey, a county full of natural and man made beauty. But it is also a country, like most others, that is rapidly sacrificing beauty to expediency. The world over, we are rapidly killing off our horizons for the convenience, and necessity of the cellular telephone and its ubiquitous tower. For countries like this one that have never enjoyed fully reliable land line service, the cell phone is a readily achievable opportunity to bring reliable telephone service to everyone across the country.

But beware the infrastructure.

In Foça, if you could see beyond the tangle of towers, you would see a panoramic view of the Aegean Sea. And we are no less guilty in the U.S., though perhaps we are sillier. Who is fooled – or amused or inspired - by that towering pine? Why is that preferable to the honesty, at least, of the tower that tells you what it is doing? Why can't we expect to be informed and educated and dazzled by our structures? What if the design of cellular towers was the result of the finest in structural innovation or of the most creative whimsy? Dare to imagine a combination of the two. We could be delighted by a continuous search for which tower exhibits the most fun.

Expecting art and design in every public action will not quiet the discussion about appropriate sites or views for cell towers, wind turbines or satellite dishes. Perhaps though, the quality of the discussion, as well as the quality of the product, holds the promise of capturing imaginations.

Barbara Knecht is director of design at the Institute for Human Centered Design (formerly Adaptive Environments), a non-profit organization committed to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.

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