Sep 8, 2014

SDF2014: Q&A with Susan Szenasy

Susan Szenasy is the editor and publisher of Metropolis, the New York City–based architecture, design, and culture magazine. Tonight, as a part of the Seattle Design Festival, Szenasy is joined by designer Natalia Ilyin and University of Washington landscape historian Thaisa Way for a discussion of Szenasy's career, and the way design affects our everyday lives. We were able to catch up with her in anticipation of tonight's event.

Is this your first time in Seattle? If so, what are you most looking forward to? If not, what are some of your favorite architectural highlights?

I have been coming to Seattle for at least two decades, always on some business trip or another. These trips usually introduce me to some stellar architects, developers, designers who make the city a special place. To me Seattle feels lively, textured, young and optimistic. This may the combination of how well history lives with new development, how the brick city relates to glass and steel, each giving the other room to breathe.

On my most recent trip I visited the Bullitt Center, a game changing office building that has become a beacon to environmentally aware architects, planners, citizens from everywhere. There I felt that I was part of something that is changing our world or the better; saw how a building can make us healthier while making the city cleaner and its environment less stressed. The Bullitt experience made me think how important and hopeful real innovation is to everyone, from the mechanic to the architect to the folks who work there.

Can you describe your "Design Advocate" book in three sentences? What does it mean to be a design advocate, and why is that important?

The only way to be a design advocate is to care about design and designers, to believe that they can make our world better. I have always believed this and this belief makes me hold designers to a high standard of ethical and professional behavior. When I'm critical, I'm actually advocating for them to do a better job, the kind of job that I know they're itching to do.

What would you say is the most significant or important thing you've learned or discovered in the course of your career?

I discovered early on that a curious mind, a sturdy body, and an optimistic spirit go a long way. I also realized that homework is forever, that each day I have to learn a bunch of new things to keep up with the ever-growing body of knowledge that goes into creating the best designed environments that easily mesh with the natural environment and human nature.

What is your advice for young people interested in getting involved in the design field? 

Look at it, every chance you get. Stare at architecture for some time, see how it changes as the light changes; look at the shapes and materials of products you love and try to define why you love them so; look at films and how they represent the designed environment through set design to location design, in fact look at old films, black and white films, that show the urban condition in high contrast. And read everything you can put your hands on. Seeing and reading can lead to an understanding mind and a sympathetic heart.

What do you think are some of the most important or pressing issues architects and designers will be forced to face in the next 20 years as the world population explodes, cities grow, and space shrinks?

The things we used to call green, sustainable, or environmentally sensitive began to scratch the surface of what designers need to think about for the next 20 years. But in our times of dramatic climate change and massive population growth, the demands on designers—in fact on all of us—are much more complex than they ever were. Today and going forward our designers need to think of buildings that breathe as well as collect and clean their own water, products and finishes that are safe to be around, and finding ways to connect people to nature—this implies that a whole system of connectivity needs to be understood and practiced. I'm with Bucky Fuller, I admire systems, not small fixes but studying the larger implications of everything we do. This requires connecting with people and information on a very intense level; our mobile technology is already helping us with one part of that connectivity (information), now we need to figure out how to connect with each other.

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