As a disclaimer, I’ll start by saying that I have no idea how the lecture was pitched to the speaker.

On October 25, I attended Sarah Dunn’s lecture, titled “New Realism”.  This event was part of Taubman College’s Politics lecture series, so, though Ms. Dunn is an architect and works for an architecture and urban design firm, I was eager to see how she explained the interaction of her discipline with political forces and how her firm worked to address political issues.  The firm she co-founded, UrbanLab, is based in Chicago and works on a fascinating range of projects at many different scales.  Some of the work she presented during the lecture focused on individual homes while others tackled problems like Chicago’s storm water runoff strategies.

Ms. Dunn is clearly an accomplished designer.  She presented breathtaking photos and renderings of homes that she and UrbanLab had created, and one would count him- or herself lucky to live in such a building.  However, I found UrbanLab’s larger scale projects troubling.

For a lecture billed as “political” and named “New Realism”, I would have expected the lecturer to deal more directly with things like “politics” and “reality”.  Perhaps it is my inexperience with the architect’s lexicon, but I found these two elements missing from the work she presented.  We go on to graduate studies, it is said, to learn a language, so I readily admit that I don’t speak the same language as Ms. Dunn.  That being said, it was distressing to listen to someone discuss massive interventions (read: several city blocks) without mention of residents’ needs or preferences, or neighborhood character, or even that the project team took the time to figure out what those were.

In fact, there were a number of times throughout the talk that Ms. Dunn referred to urban design elements that were “cute”, “random”, or “weird”.  I personally found it unsettling that she used those words to rationalize the overhaul, even in theory, of a neighborhood.  She said outright that the only thing that’s important to her is whether it is beautiful.

If you are only concerned with what’s beautiful, how can you effectively intervene to address problems that aren’t aesthetic?  Through partnerships?  All right, why not explain to us how to do that?  Actually, that would have made a great lecture: let’s hear about how designers can partner with planners, engineers, economists, community groups, and political actors to affect change in the built environment.  Sadly, that is not the lecture we heard.

Aesthetics is her bailiwick.  Fine.  However, because Ms. Dunn does not have a deep understanding of the processes involved in large-scale environmental interventions, and neither, in all likelihood, did the audience, it would have been helpful to hear about ways to leverage the skills of others in these projects.  And that really was the word of the night, “leverage”.  Ms. Dunn repeatedly emphasized that UrbanLab “leveraged” necessary urban infrastructure to create assets for cities.  This is an admirable goal, and I believe that integrating things like runoff infrastructure into a built environment that occupants actually experience is a worthy objective – how else can people understand the way a city truly functions?  Ms. Dunn, unfortunately, was far too vague in describing how UrbanLab leveraged its partnerships, nor did she adequately describe the political climate in which the firm worked other than a few offhand allusions to the Recession.

This was a promising topic for the Politics lectures series.  This, I think, could have been exactly the kind of talk architecture students really need: they have a unique, highly developed set of skills but a limited context in which to apply them.  I am biased as a planning student, but that doesn’t mean I’m mistaken about this.  I left the lecture feeling that this particular architect made plans that were pretty, but aimless.  And really, when a speaker says, with respect to zoning and site requirements, “It’s all politics anyway, so it doesn’t matter”, how am I supposed to get on board?  How does that dismissive attitude toward reality help anyone living in a city?  Maybe that's why we, as planners, are so important to the process - we can navigate reality and translate its implications to both the producers and users of an urban space.