The Designosaur Story

How I met the Designosaur

Hello, I am an architect. And this is the record of an astonishing encounter I had when I became involved with the Anthropocene thesis. Like most of us, I grew up and was socialised in the geological epoch called the Holocene. The stable, constant - and supposedly endless - geological period that has lasted for the last 11,700 years, which most likely has come to an end. Climate change is just one indicator of this assumption. Within these last 11,700 years, humans transformed from "one species among others" to the "dominant geological force" on this planet.

To describe this new role of humans, the term "Anthropocene" emerged. It is a controversial term that is still much debated. Nevertheless, the sciences agree on one core message: humans are deeply involved in a global change - humans have become the dominant geological force. That's a pretty amazing fact! Yet it is also somehow very abstract and disturbing.

So, I decided that I needed to find out more about the Anthropocene and how it effects my design practice as an architect. I have always felt that Architecture should be contemporary, and if my design is to be contemporary and the Anthropocene is the new epoch, we live in  then I wanted to know all about it. I wondered, what was the best way to familiarise yourself with something completely new? Something abstract and yet very present at the same time?

I decided to take a walk - a walk into the Anthropocene.

My plan was to look at some of the beautiful, well-made, accurate and innovative buildings. The buildings that are constantly praised in magazines and online. I wanted to find out how they deal with the new conditions. It was on this journey that I bumped into the Designosaur. Of course, at first, I didn't know that I had met a Designosaur. But after a while it became very obvious. And soon enough, it became clear this encounter was a story that reflected back on me.

My journey began with an innocent walk through the Anthropocene and ended in an intense, emotional and exhausting discussion. Full of surprises and assertions. Nevertheless, it was one of the most enlightening encounters I have ever had.

But let's start from the beginning. Are you ready for a whole new experience? One walk, ten chapters. Welcome to the Anthropocene!

01: What’s this?

Okay - imagine a city like Berlin. Or any other city. Or any other place on the planet. As long as you don't forget - we are in the Anthropocene. But in my case, I was in Berlin. The weather was good - surprisingly warm for this time of year - and I was full of anticipation to see some of the widely appreciated work of my colleagues.

I walked along the streets. Looking at the dense developments that had grown over the years. All kinds of different architecture, from all kinds of eras. Some Gründerzeit buildings with the typical stucco. Other elegant examples of the early Bauhaus tradition. Buildings from the 1950s, the reconstruction period after the World War Two. Beautiful examples of the ideas of the 60s and 70s. Postmodern buildings, a genuine trip through history. I liked them.

But they were not the reason I was there. I was interested in finding the contemporary buildings - those built within the last 20 years - since people began talking about the Anthropocene thesis. It wasn't hard to find them either. They are almost all big and shiny - and some of them are still under construction. When I looked at them, their shapes and surfaces were familiar. I understood the references and the intention. Well made, good quality. These buildings are designed in the manner I had been taught during my training and work experience. I stopped in front of a building that had probably been built in the last twenty years and said:

Me: Hello! How are you?

Building: Hello! I'm fine, enjoying the here and now. How are you?

Me: I'm fine, thank you. I'm just taking a walk through the Anthropocene. I'm trying to get used to this new epoch.

Building: Hmm, okay. That's cool. I'm more here too, chilling, shining. Living the moment!

Me: Hmmm. Sounds good to me. Looks like you're enjoying staying here.

Building: Yes! I've taken up residence here. I heard the Holocene is kind of coming to an end. So, I want to make sure I have a good site in the Anthropocene.

Me: Ah, that's why you look so familiar, I know you from the Holocene. How are you coping with the new conditions here? It's quite different, isn't it?

Building: Hmm... it’s different somehow. But not too much! Generally speaking, a little make-up and some jewellery seems to be enough to adapt. You know: Don't change too much... people don't like that.

After that sentence I was perplexed. So, this building was able to talk about moving from the Holocene, but really believed that some jewellery and make-up was appropriate for dealing with the Anthropocene. Interesting! When I read about the Anthropocene, it always sounded like a fundamentally different world to me.

Anyway ... did I just talk to a building?
Yes, I did.

And to avoid misunderstanding: There is no scientific proof that buildings can talk in the Anthropocene! Alexa doesn't count!

I was surprised and didn't really know what to do next, so I probed:

Me: Okay. Interesting. Well welcome to the Anthropocene. By the way, how should I address you?

Building: You can call me CDB. That's short for contemporary-designed-building. And what is your name?

Me: I'm an architect - for contemporary design. But you can just call me Architect. Nice to meet you, CDB - I have to go now.

CDB (former building): Bye, architect. See you around!

I continued my walk wondering what had just happened and why I didn't like this building - - the CDB.

02: Trying to name it

I enjoyed my stroll, but I discovered more and more CDB relatives. At least, I suspected they were relatives. With the Anthropocene thesis in mind, I stared at them and wondered, "Is there something wrong with these buildings? Or is it just me?". After a while, impressive images appeared in my mind's eye. Images of the mines from which we extracted the limestone, iron and sand to build these buildings. I saw tankers on the sea. Loaded with oil for the insulation and waterproofing we put on everything. I saw power stations to heat and cool the buildings and amazingly large piles of rubbish. It was disturbing.

I closed my eyes and hoped the images would disappear.

When I opened my eyes again, my perception had changed. I saw the CDB and its relatives in a different light. These buildings cannot be "contemporary design buildings". There should be another term to name them.

I grabbed my sketchbook

(yes, every architect ALWAYS carries a sketchbook - really!), sat down on a bench and started writing down my thoughts.

It’s supposedly called good design - well done, accurate and innovative.

It’s being built now. Not in the past and hopefully not in the future.

It’s not about using new or old technologies.

It uses technology as though it were jewellery or make-up to adapt. But does not question its inner values.

It likes to look at details but refuses to look at overarching issues.

It’s very serious and has no self-irony or playfulness.

It’s not appropriate or doesn’t fit the new circumstances.

It’s most likely designed for or by a white, male and wealthy person.

It’s very familiar to us and everyone's darling.

I wasn't sure what to call it yet.... but obviously there was something wrong with the contemporary-design-building. It was obviously a building. And it was obviously design... but was it contemporary?

03: Designosaur

Putting my thoughts on paper and drawing the figures (which were of course very scientific - no doubt about it!) absorbed all my attention. I had been sitting on this bench for quite a while, and then began to look around. I was surrounded by buildings, cars, roads - and some trees - but whenever I blinked, the images of the mines, the oil and the rubbish reappeared. I became more and more aware of what a dramatic new era we had created. I started thinking about the climate crisis, about climate justice, about the massive human interventions in the various systems and cycles of the planet, about the relationship between humans and non-humans and other horrific things that you really don’t want to deal with - but have to!

It started to rain. (Maybe it was just me crying - but I'm not sure if architects are allowed to cry. So, I suspected it was raining). I closed my sketchbook and watched the rain. I felt warm drops of water running down my face. (Okay, I was crying!)

At the same time my mind was buzzing with all sorts of questions: What do I like about these contemporary designed buildings? How did they arrive in the Anthropocene? Why do we allow them to stay? Are these contemporary designed buildings appropriate for today... or are these buildings just design...? What’s the best name for these buildings? Design… Design-osaurs - Designosaurs?

Intrigued by the term Designosaur I had stopped crying.

Maybe we should just call them that.... Designosaurs.

These buildings were well designed, with the requirements, ideas and attitude of the past and then stored in the Anthropocene - the present. That was the reason why they were so familiar to me on one side and on the other side they didn't fit here. So long as one doesn’t pay attention to the new environment of the Anthropocene - it just looks like good architecture. Yet, it's still a Designosaur, out of time. I opened my sketchbook

 and tried to put my thoughts on paper.

Okay - this building I just spoke to is not a CDB, it's a Designosaur. Obviously, the Designosaur has to leave the Anthropocene. But how could that be achieved? Mankind had never been confronted with anything like a Designosaur before. Besides, the Designosaur was quite big! And many people still like it. I couldn't just push it away or ban it. So, I had to find another way. First, I had to find out more about the Designosaur. And then, of course, I needed the help of other architects.

I decided to be very brave return to the Designosaur I had already spoken to. At that moment I felt like a little adventure boy. Not like Indiana Jones, more like that emoji with the chicks in the eggshell.

04: Place and Localities

On the way back to the site, I wondered how I could restart the conversation? I mean, I couldn't just come out with, "Hey, you're a Designosaur, right?" But then I remembered the theme of liking jewellery and make-up. To me, that sounded like my best chance to get his attention. So, I stopped a few feet in front of the Designosaur and pretended to read a book. (yes, every architect ALWAYS has a book in his bag. Every now and then I would look at the Designosaur and simulate my best admiring facial expression. After a few moments, this caught its attention...

Designosaur (formerly CDB): Hey, it's you again. How was your walk?

Me: Hey. Yes. Hmm, good to see you again. It was good, enlightening, I think

Silence - I continued to make silly facial expressions (Embarrassing, I must admit!) And after a while, the Designosaur asked:

Designosaur: Are you okay?

Me: I... I just wanted to say: You have beautiful eyes...

Designosaur: Oh, thank you. It's triple glazing, with an extra solar control film. That's where the colouring comes from.

Me: It's beautiful. Although I can't really see inside - because of the extra solar control film. But anyway... there's a lot of glass - ehh, eyes on you. Hot!

Designosaur: Yes, it's literally hot! The sun kills me sometimes... And then there's this climate change thing. It's getting warmer every year. Anyway: I have this nice cooling system. Super nice. Look at all these pipes and ducts.... amazing, isn't it?

This was my chance to change the subject - and get rid of my stupid expression! I asked:

Me: Okay, wow yeah... nice. Anyway, how come you ended up here? I wasn't expecting something like you here in the Anthropocene.

Designosaur: Oh, well... I just came. I mean, it's no big deal. It's more or less the same here as it's been for the last 11000 years or so. I like this stable, constant, endless place. The climate might be changing - okay - but... everyone just seems to love me and my shine!

Me: Hmm, yeah, you're probably right, everyone is pretty used to you and for many it's hard to imagine a world without you. But I don't get your "stable, constant and endless" thing.... I mean... is that true? Hasn't this place changed? I think it’s changed because of you. And it's constantly changing now because of you. And there are other localities involved. Not just your building site.

Designosaur: Wow! Hold on a second. I'm not responsible for what happens in other localities! I wear this beautiful, glamourous jewellery and make-up, placed perfectly on my facade. And as such I fit perfectly here, on this site!

Me: Okay? And what about climate change? In terms of sustainability...

Designosaur: Well, I'm trying to adapt. But this whole sustainability thing is also kind of annoying.... For me it's about space, not sustainability!

Me: Ohhh... maybe space is about sustainability?
Me: Oh... maybe space is about sustainability?

The Designosaur turned away, pointed to another Designosaur and said:

Designosaur: Look at that beautiful piece of architecture over there. It's blended perfectly with its surroundings. Amazing urban planning! It looks like it's a natural part of the environment, doesn't it? It fits perfectly in its place. That's architecture, that's sustainable.

Me: Yes, I like it. But...

Designosaur: And - to talk about me again - I have a seal of quality! I officially have a sustainability double platinum standard with an additional green diamond star! That's top level!

Me: Okay wow. Do you need a quality seal for your stability and purpose?

Designosaur: Em. No, that's stupid! Of course, any building has to have an undeniable stability and the use has to be fulfilled.... otherwise, it's just not architecture... or at least very bad architecture!

Me: Okay, you got my point!

Designosaur: What point?

Me: Never mind... was probably just one of my confused thoughts.

The Designosaur didn't respond to that. The conversation stopped and I had time to let my thoughts sink in. I wasn't sure if what I had said made sense. While we were both silent, I drew something in my sketchbook.
I tried to get my thoughts in order. The Designosaur was obviously only aware of one building site, other localities don’t exist for it. Yet we can no longer speak of a stable, continuous and endless place. The place and our relationship to it have changed - should the buildings too?