Working for an international architecture firm sounds exciting and in many ways it is. As a global practitioner, you get exposed to foreign culture and often less restrictive design environments than in the US. However, many people struggle to find connection with their work after participating on projects that are halfway around the world. I'm no different. Often, it can be hard to grasp the reality of what you're doing when it lies around the globe and working across cultures or in ambitious developing economies can leave one stretched over a barrel when considering factors like human rights, sustainability and globalization. But this is part of what it is to participate in the modern global economy and it's an increasingly important way of practicing.
Design studies from a recent project in Al Ain, UAE
The US is a world economic leader, but according to the Brookings Institute, our share of the global export economy continues to dwindle as growth of goods and services in China and India supersede our efforts. Further, the Mountain West falls below the national average for international goods and service exports. What does this mean? It doesn't mean I need to go on a big 'buy American' rant. It just means that there's a big opportunity to learn to embrace thinking and working globally.
For their part, the Brookings Institute has paired with JP Morgan Chase to create the Global Cities Initiative - bringing expertise from Brookings and JP Morgan to the economic development officers of cities around the U.S. to help shift the focus from local to global thinking. Traditionally, city-level economic development has emphasized attracting successful multinational companies from outside to engage with and bolster local markets. The Global Cities Initiative turns this on it's head. Economic developers are pushed to look at what companies already working in their cities do well and seeking other places around the globe looking for similar expertise. Local businesses can then be exposed to a new market for global growth while bringing more success to their local economy. Portland, for example, has joined the initiative and identified that there is significant local expertise in sustainable design - companies providing that expertise have been packaged together and presented to like-minded municipalities in Japan and China looking for sustainability experts. While this sort of knowledge sharing isn't just limited to design firms, it underscores the long-term necessity of developing a global perspective on design.
Western design firms continue to hold a strong grasp on the leading edge of quality design and architecture. And, as countries that have been considered developed for a longer period of time than many of the emerging economies, we've had time to try and fail in many urban (and suburban) experiments. Purely through a function of maturity of experience, we have a knowledge base that can help new development not recreate the same mistakes over again. In that sense, it's worth thinking once in a while about design that's Not In My Backyard.
If the opportunity of working internationally is recognized, it opens the door to a wide world of contexts to work within. However, this puts a designer into the uncomfortable realm of passing along the best of what we know in environments that, if we're not careful, can turn into reflections of our worst western ideas. This is an ongoing challenge and I don't have an answer here, but I think part of it lies in thoughtful, subtle design that straddles ambition of a developing world and the lessons learned of those of us lucky enough to be on the developed end of the spectrum.
As an analogy of that thought, a coworker reminded me of Norman Foster's Hong Kong and Shanghi Bank. Built as a monument to financial success, the building is an almost steampunk bridge structure that creates public space at its base. And what's clever about that? The bridge creates a public space that houses a market and shelter for the very low wage workers that would otherwise go unnoticed in a high-dollar financial district.