Crisis of Solutions / Opportunity of Crisis

[Crisis As Catalyst: The Annual Thesis Publication 2009, Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, & Design / University of Toronto.]

[Crisis As Catalyst: The Annual Thesis Publication 2009, Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, & Design / University of Toronto.]

The Thesis publication this year, ANNUAL, has raised the stakes again. Below is a short piece I submitted to it, which asked for responses to the provocation of "crisis as catalyst."


The Crisis of Solutions / The Opportunity of Crises -  (Mason White) There are so many proclamations of crises today – economic, climate, social, political, and apparently there is even a crisis of form - that the result is virtually numbing. In fact the greatest crisis is the crisis of indifference to crisis. (Insert story of boy who cried wolf.) Yet how do we, in any productive profession, react to such a call to action? Are these just snafus stalling an inevitable trajectory or larger paradigm shifts suggesting a new world? What role does a designer play here?

“If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top.” – Buckminster Fuller

The quote above from Buckminster Fuller’s Operational Manual for Spaceship Earth revolves around an argument that the piano top as a flotation device is an inadvertent solution to a problem that requires more adequate redress. While I agree that the piano top is not necessarily the most ideal life preserver, I disagree with Fuller's propositioning that crisis management exclusively requires going back to reevaluate the design of life preservers. This overlooks the innovation and ingenuity of the user, and in many ways a piano top may be even more effective as a life preserver in its ability to offer a way to get out of the water, and a way to float more individuals than a single preserver on a shared surface. We could also make the argument that the piano top (if buoyant enough) can double as a water-born vehicle. But this does not mean that the life preserver should be designed in homage to the piano top, but rather that the piano top, in the right hands, can be rigged to be a life preserver. I would argue that the architect here is no longer the designer of the piano top nor the designer of a life preserver but the person – in this case the person in the water – that opportunistically addresses a crisis (of some magnitude) with this innovative programmatic or typological transformation. The architect is the person that hacks / rigs the piano top into a life preserver. In the face of myriad crises, I would propose a (paradigm?) shift from the binary of problem / solution toward challenges / opportunity. Design work is typically resigned to either a signature response to a brief (capital D-design) or a solution to a problem (lowercase d-design). However, both of these are reductive and both overlook the role of design to position itself as an opportunity. Opportunity locates design as a response addressing the problem but incorporates another unexpected possibility, namely a typological or programmatic innovation in response to a yet-unseen factor. Opportunities are solutions rigged to address future challenges and as yet unseen problems.

More info on ANNUAL can be found here. Or try emailing The Annual theannual.daniels[at]

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