Last year I was contacted by the curators of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. They wanted to feature some of my work in an upcoming exhibition. Nos Jours Heureux. Our Happy Life. So here I am in Montreal. It’s nice to be asked.
I was immediately tickled when I arrived at the museum and found the perimeter fence lined with Douglas Coupland’s Quotes For the Twenty First Century. I’ve been a big Coupland fanboy ever since reading Generation X in 1991. He captures a certain reassuring ambivalence about an imperfect world. I was in good company. It was an auspicious beginning.
A lecture was presented by Francesco Garutti who organized the program. He had reached out to a wide cross section of people around the world and put together a collection of vignettes about our present condition. The goal was to ask questions and prompt discussion more than offer definitive answers. What are the underlying global dynamics that are driving the built environment?
A fast and dirty takeaway of the material might be that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is increasingly being replaced by GNH (Gross National Happiness) as the metric that matters. But that opens a can of worms. GNH is subject to the same shenanigans as any other framework for directing society with its own unintended consequences. Barbara Ehrenreich’s, “Smile or die” discusses the cultural mandate to be relentlessly optimistic. Breast cancer? Unemployment? Foreclosure? You just need a better attitude. But not acknowledging fundamental flaws can lead to systemic failure.
In 2008 a Reuters photographer in London accidentally captured a critical event. The facade of Lehman Brothers Bank shows the moment when employees were informed of the company’s implosion. A few weeks earlier unbridled institutional optimism didn’t allow for this possibility.
There’s also the risk that our existing institutions can, and certainly will, distort the original intension of GNH just as it did with GDP for the last several decades. If happiness is categorized, quantified, and ranked we could arrive at a competitive zero sum game. Tokyo is promoting itself as the safest city on the planet. If you want your city to attract global capital you’ll need to achieve some version of the Tokyo status. Otherwise you’ll be left to twist in the wind.
Copenhagen is a bicyclist’s paradise. Don’t you want your town to be as good as a premier Danish city so the right kinds of educated high income people will want to live there too?
And then there’s the universal tendency to respond to pressure by fudging the numbers. The Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis built a new corporate campus and the landscape was peppered with taxidermy wildlife for the promotional photographs. How green is your Instagram?
The gap between a superficial temporary cultural interpretation of happiness and the larger external reality can be profound. A pristine suburban landscape can be transformed overnight by any number of events. How does that factor in to a statistical happiness agenda?
If happiness is the goal, and more happiness can be achieved with physical design, how does that drive values? More natural light, attractive views, fresh air, and quiet all contribute to emotional well being. These things can be tallied up and priced. So if your neighbor places a giant noisy air conditioning unit on her roof and it blocks your view of the water who’s comfort and happiness – and real estate values – are prioritized? What administrative mechanisms adjudicate such conflicts? How joyful is that process?
This takes me around to my contribution to the exhibition. When all this happiness talk is squeezed through the meat grinder of our established institutions a lot of people are left out of the loop. So how are individuals meant to achieve their own version of happiness on the low budget margins?
My photos from the fresh lava fields of Hawaii were presented as an example. People sometimes choose a temporary life of natural risk over the impossibility of affording a more stable conventional life elsewhere. The rules that govern society are ignored in these odd corners because they’re irrelevant to the authorities. A self selecting population exists largely outside of official concerns.
So there you have it – my adventures in international high culture. You never know where a little blog might lead you… Nos jours heureux.