“If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.” -Leonard Cohen
It’s a busy night at the Boston Opera House. Couples file in with black ties and glistening gowns. Martinis float by on trays, dodging patron elbows and distracted faces. The house lights flicker and ticket holders head for their seats to watch the century-old drama, Swan Lake. But when the house lights return and signal intermission, a new drama begins. The ladies in the audience must now make a decision and make it quickly: Sprint toward the restrooms and risk missing curtain call, or sit through the second act with a full bladder.
Before most of the audience has a chance to leave their row, the 22 women’s toilets on the lower level are occupied and a line of 100 women has formed. The clock is ticking, only 15 minutes left…
Everyone accepts that the Opera House — along with dozens of other theaters — needs more women’s toilets. The problem isn’t new. The state updated its plumbing code in the 1990s, requiring theaters to provide one toilet per 30 females and one for every 60 males. But the Opera House is a 100-year-old historic landmark, exempting it from new regulations. And while they did add eight more women’s toilets within the last 10 years, it was a costly ordeal that required an architect, a set designer, and a special mandate that any new fixtures did not touch the historic walls.
And so, there the women stand. Intermission after intermission. Waiting in a long and anxious line to pee.
The origin of the issue stems from a mixture of gender discrimination and cultural oversight, but the obstacle standing between the problem and solution now is more straightforward: Buildings don’t adapt well.
In his book, How Buildings Learn, inventor and designer, Stuart Brand writes, “[buildings] are designed not to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to, constructed not to, administered not to, maintained not to, regulated and taxed not to, even remodeled not to. But all buildings adapt anyway, however poorly, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly.”
The famous Chicago high-rise designer, Louis Sullivan handed down a phrase back in 1896 that would shape modern architecture when he said, “Form ever follows function.” It was this idea, Brand writes, that “misled a century of architects into believing that they could really anticipate function.” Builders have traditionally settled on site and structure based on what they believe the services and space plans will require. But culture, fashion, and economics drive changes in service and space plans faster than site and structure can keep up with.
Keep in mind, we used to think asbestos was god’s gift to construction. Lead-based paint was celebrated because of its durability until 1978. There was a time, long ago, when restaurant owners designed kitchens to accommodate cooking — not multiple emergency exits. New technology pushes out old ways of thinking, making key aspects of infrastructure obsolete. New laws and new values all lead to expensive remodels, miles of red tape, and a revolving door of services.
We have this romantic idea that architecture should be permanent, that our structures should be protected against change, yet the world keeps moving forward. Old buildings don’t get demolished because people don’t like old buildings. They get demolished because, over the course of 50 years, changes to a building cost an average of 3X the price of the original build. Those old structures we love the most — the ones steeped in historic nostalgia — they may be beautiful, but they were not built with time in mind.
“Time,” the late British architect Frank Duffy once said, “is the essence of the real design problem.”
Humans have a funny way of looking at change over time. We recognize that we were different people five years ago, yet we underestimate or ignore that we’ll be different people five years from now. The psychologist Dan Gilbert calls this, The End of History Illusion. “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever met.”
In a world of uncertainty, change is the only thing to be certain of. Our tastes, desires, and perspectives change with the wind; revealing new sides of ourselves and unearthing layers long forgotten from childhood. Still, we plan for the future based on who we are now.
Winston Churchill once remarked, “We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” The human experience is similar. The external world shapes our internal world, then vice versa, over and over. There are political events, economic downturns, a constant re-defining of what’s appropriate and what’s not. No one can claim total sovereignty over their sphere of influence. We’re in control of how we act, think, and respond to change, but there’s no denying that so much of life remains outside our control. Everyone lives in a brick house until a global pandemic turns it to straw.
It’s the unstoppable force of time and change that make creativity such an essential way of life. Creativity is the catalyst for humans to not only adapt but to be the architects of their own change. Think of the pillars of a creative practice:
Curiosity: The power to ask questions, to become interested. Being curious is the first step in moving from passive to active; the first step in making our world bigger.
Empathy: Humans are the only species that can think themselves into another person’s experience. We can learn, understand, and literally feel the joy or pain of another human by simply watching and listening.
Imagination: First we feel, then we imagine. We can imagine a new future for ourselves and others. A vision of life that may not exist yet. Whether a blessing or curse, you can always count on humans to look at what’s available and imagine something better.
Courage: We must move past our fear and the fear of others to turn our empathy and imagination into a tangible change in the world. Without the courage to act and make a change, we become victims of circumstance.
These are the Four Horsemen of Creativity. We can all access them, but they are tools that need to be sharpened. Without these tools, we decay. We become stuck in our ways while the world changes arounds us, pushing costly renovations we aren’t prepared for, threatening demolition.
Human life is a life of continual transformation, continual rebirth. We need to build our foundation with time in mind. Design our structures with an acceptance that we don’t know what’s going to happen, how the world will look, or who we’re going to be.
Another great line from Lenard Cohen: “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.” The Four Horsemen of Creativity give us the tools to adapt; the tools to become the ocean. When we build our foundations with curiosity, empathy, imagination, and courage, we prepare ourselves to adapt to the changes in the world that are outside our control.
If you want to stay human, you’ve got to be about change.