Marc Kushner: How Do Buildings Make Us Feel? Architect Marc Kushner explains why architecture tends to swing drastically between traditional and experimental styles — and why the future of building design is going to be different.
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How Do Buildings Make Us Feel?

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How Do Buildings Make Us Feel?

How Do Buildings Make Us Feel?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, we're exploring ideas about the power of design, including perhaps the most ubiquitous kind.

MARC KUSHNER: Architecture.

RAZ: This this is Marc Kushner.

KUSHNER: We are always in architecture. And if we're not in architecture, we're surrounded by architecture. So think about anything else that has that much presence in your life that you don't respond to emotionally, right? You spend as much time around buildings as you do around your loved ones.

RAZ: And while you or I may not notice those buildings, Marc Kushner does.

KUSHNER: I'm an architect.

RAZ: Is that, like, a job that you always wanted to do, or is it - like, how does that work?

KUSHNER: No, like - you know, within architecture you'll hear the story frequently that well, I used to play with Legos so I always knew I'd be an architect.

RAZ: Except every kid plays with Legos.

KUSHNER: Exactly.

RAZ: Marc's connection to design actually started in a more unusual way. Mark's dad is a real estate developer, and so on weekends, he would take Marc and his siblings to see every kid's favorite attraction...

KUSHNER: Suburban office buildings in western Jersey.

RAZ: Oh my God...

KUSHNER: Yeah, you know, like...

RAZ: ...Beautiful.

KUSHNER: I remember an office building actually, and it looked like every other suburban office building, except it was this really weird baby blue. It just struck me that someone went out on a limb here. It made me think that there were possibilities that ordinarily you don't see explored.

RAZ: And so it occurred to Marc that all buildings, whether they're suburban office buildings or the Empire State Building, they can all make us feel something, something we don't often think about.

KUSHNER: So when you see something like the Eiffel Tower, you're sort of aware of oh my God, this is a building; this is affecting me. But it doesn't have to be that bombastic.

The places where you spend your day to day - that strip mall where you get your coffee or that store where you really like to sit and read in - these places affect you. They make you happier. They make you feel protected. That's an emotional power that architecture brings to the table.

RAZ: Marc's idea is that architects today have more tools and more technology than ever before to unlock those emotions, emotions we don't always realize are there. So think back to your childhood home. You can probably remember the layout - your bedroom, the hallways. And Marc says you remember those things for a reason.

Here's how mark remembered his childhood home from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE TED TALK)

KUSHNER: Around the corner from my bedroom was the bathroom that I used to share with my sister. And in between my bedroom and the bathroom was a balcony that overlooked the family room. And that's where everyone would hang out and watch TV, so that every time that I walked from my bedroom to the bathroom, everyone would see me. And every time that I took a shower and would come back in a towel, everyone would see me.

And I hated it. I hated that walk. I hated that balcony. I hated that room, and I hated that house, and that's architecture.

(LAUGHTER)

KUSHNER: Done (laughter). That feeling, those emotions that I felt - that's the power of architecture because architecture's not about math and it's not about zoning. It's about those visceral emotional connections that we feel to the places that we occupy. That means that architecture is shaping us in ways that we didn't even realize. That makes us a little bit gullible and very, very predictable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Predictable because architects more or less know how people feel about certain designs. They use symbols as shortcuts to emotion. And it's why so many government buildings are based off Greek designs.

We see those columns and pediments, and we think power and authority. But Marc says it also means that architecture can fall into the same patterns because there's a lot at stake.

KUSHNER: It's really scary to build something. It's really expensive. It takes so long. It's so complicated. And if you're going to put all of this stuff on the line and you're going to risk so much money and time and energy, I think people start to think well, I better make some safe choices. I better mitigate that risk somehow. And I think one of the first things to go is design.

RAZ: Which is how buildings like the library in Marc's hometown in Livingston, N.J., get built.

KUSHNER: Livingston built this really - I guess I'd say colonial version of what a library is - white dome, and it has white columns and red brick. It's perfectly polite. I just think that they could have done better.

(SOUNDBITE TED TALK)

KUSHNER: And you can kind of - you know, you can kind of guess what Livingston's trying to say with this building - children, property values and history. But it doesn't have much to do with what a library actually does today. That same year in 2004 on the other side of the country, another library was completed. It's in Seattle...

Which looks kind of like a geode. It's like this frozen crystal in the middle of downtown Seattle. And it kind of twists and torques its way up to be a very tall building, and it's completely clad in glass. And this building was a sort of first stab at OK, what's a library now, now that books are changing and the way that we consume information is changing?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KUSHNER: This library is about how we consume media in a digital age. It's about a new kind of public amenity for the city, a place to gather and read and share. So how was it possible that in the same year, in the same country, two buildings both called by libraries look so completely different? And the answer is that architecture works on the principle of a pendulum.

RAZ: OK, let's just pause to break this down. So think about one side of that pendulum being traditional, like that colonial-looking library. And then on the other side, there are buildings like the Seattle library - provocative, experimental. And the story of architecture, Marc says, is a constant back and forth between those two approaches - traditional, experimental.

KUSHNER: For instance, you know, in the '70s, architects were coming out of a period of experimentation with brutalism - concrete dense buildings...

RAZ: Yeah.

KUSHNER: ...Small windows, really heavy, heavy, heavy buildings. And then architects kind of pushed it too far, and the public lost faith in these buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KUSHNER: So as we get closer to the '80s, we push the pendulum back into the other direction and reengage those symbols that we know you love.

Let's just give the people some pediments for a while. Let's just give them columns that they can relate to because they've seen them before.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KUSHNER: In the late '80s and early '90s, we throw out historical symbols. We rely on new computer-aided design techniques. Forms crashing into forms, this is academic and heady stuff. It's super unpopular. We totally alienate you, so we start experiment again. And we push the pendulum back and back and forth and back and forth we've gone for the last 300 years and certainly for the last 30 years.

But then I think that the pendulum kind of fell apart.

RAZ: What happened?

KUSHNER: Hands down the building that changed everything was Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

RAZ: You've probably seen photos of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. It looks kind of like a series of huge, wide ribbons of steel resting on each other. And it's incredibly innovative and experimental. But at the same time, it was inviting. You just kind of felt good looking at it. And for the first time, the pendulum didn't really matter anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KUSHNER: This building fundamentally changes the world's relationship to architecture. Paul Goldberger said Bilbao was one of those rare moments when critics, academics and the general public were completely united around a building. The New York Times called this building a miracle. Tourism in Bilbao increased 2,500 percent after this building was completed. So all of a sudden everybody wants one of these buildings.

RAZ: So how's that possible that a building that was so radical became so beloved?

KUSHNER: It was as much the building and the success of that building as it was the media around that building, right? So after that building opened, the Internet happened. And all of a sudden, the Internet increased the speed of communication.

And we can start telling each other that other buildings were important, that other amazing stuff was going on. Once media - once digital media started speeding up and we all started learning about things online, buildings became liberated from their sites.

So a selfie in front of a building actually carries weight. It carries a different kind of weight than reading about a building in an architecture journal or seeing it in a big portfolio book. It becomes a part of my friend's history. It becomes a place I want to go visit, I want to see with my own eyes, and it becomes part of my story.

RAZ: Marc says that kind of relationship to architecture works really well in the world of social media. And so much so that social media is now a kind of design tool for architects. It's a tool that can create a sense of community when it comes to designing new buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KUSHNER: Let me show you how this plays out in a project that my firm recently completed. We were hired to replace this building, which burned down. This is the center of a town called the Pines in Fire Island in New York state. It's a vacation community.

We proposed a building that was audacious, that was different that was than any of the forms that the community was used to. And we were scared and our client was scared and the community was scared. So we created a series of photorealistic renderings that we put on to Facebook and we put onto Instagram. And we let people start to do what they do - share it, comment, like it, hate it. But that meant that when the rendering's looked exactly like the finished product, there were no surprises. This building was already a part of this community.

That means we don't need the Greeks anymore to tell us what to think about architecture. We can tell each other what we think about architecture because digital media hasn't just changed the relationship between all of us, it's changed the relationship between us and buildings.

(MUSIC)

RAZ: So this new approach to design, right, by including the public in the process through social media, I mean, what does that mean for the future? Are we - like, are we never going back to that period where the pendulum swings, you know, between traditional and experimental every few years?

KUSHNER: I think it's different now. I don't think it's going to be back and forth anymore from experimentation to this safe zone of using symbols that the public recognizes. I think what social media has created is the opportunity for multiple experiments to be running simultaneously. And that's because it's freed the people who make decisions about what kind of architecture they want to pay for, right? Clients and governments and developers - that makes it OK for them to experiment. It ceases to be an experiment. The norm is experimentation now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KUSHNER: That means that that pendulum swinging back and forth from style to style, from movement the movement is irrelevant. And it means that the buildings of tomorrow are going to look a lot different than the buildings of today. Buildings don't just reflect our society. They shape our society down to the smallest spaces - the local libraries, the homes where we raise our children and the walk that they take from the bedroom to the bathroom. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's architect Marc Kushner. You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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