Making the world better by design

The expanding role of creative design

Dutch & American Housing Symposium roundtable discussion on Good Design & Affordability led by Andrea Brennan, Minneapolis director of Housing Policy and Development. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Dutch & American Housing Symposium roundtable discussion on Good Design & Affordability led by Andrea Brennan, Minneapolis director of Housing Policy and Development. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.


Imagine for a moment a once vibrant neighborhood overrun by dilapidated, boarded-up buildings, drug dealers and harassed neighbors. The neighborhood is not located in Phillips, Folwell, Steven Square, Jordan, Cedar-Riverside, Near North or anywhere in Minneapolis. Or in any of countless cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit or Chicago. In fact, it is not located in the United States.

Astonishingly, it was a section of the Dutch capital city, The Hague, which had experienced a serious social downturn. Though many Americans dreamily regard the Netherlands as a quaint country laced with windmills and canals, a country known for humane and liberal laws that grant Dutch citizens a dignity of life not found here, there are and have been pockets of blight and neglect.

In 2007, a housing project dubbed “de Beeklaan” addressed this urban decay by corralling public and private creativity to develop a sophisticated housing project that allows a mix of people from varying socioeconomic and ethnic levels to live in (basic) harmony, helping to rid the surrounding neighborhood of the undesirable forces that previously plagued it. This and other examples of complex design thinking were presented during the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and Goldstein Museum of Design’s “Complexity: Dutch & American Housing” symposium, an intense 30-hour weekend mounted in early October to correspond with the release of “Complex Housing: Designing for Density,” a new book by professor Julia W. Robinson.

Robinson’s book and this symposium provided an updated perspective on the roles of design, architecture and urban planning as agents of change, specifically showcasing designers, architects and urban planners as creators of live-work environments that foster the rise of creative hubs. Minneapolis is just such a hub.

A marvelously symbiotic relationship exists between artist migration to neglected, often blighted urban neighborhoods and redevelopment. Last month’s Creative Class column commemorated our own Melisande Charles, Minneapolis’ first arts commissioner, an arts pioneer whose singular efforts helped to revive the city’s Warehouse District.

Throughout history artists have sought inexpensive spaces and places to live and work. As was the case in the Warehouse District, and more recently in Northeast Minneapolis, artists move in, set up studios and create living spaces, lofts and galleries. In America, cagey developers sniff out the new housing, retail and commercial opportunities that accompany such “squatting,” often interrupting this cycle with upscale or upmarket projects that ultimately price the artists out.

The Complexity workshop presented encouraging examples of how this sequence can be disrupted — at least in the Netherlands. Of course, Dutch and American circumstances differ vastly. Besides the obvious scale of our countries (17 million vs. 350 million inhabitants; the total landmass of the Netherlands approximates that of the state of Maryland), three primary factors — culture, economy and politics — most undermine the probability of replicating the Dutch results.

In his foreword to Robinson’s book, Hans Ibelings, prominent editor of The Architecture Observer, notes that ingrained in the Dutch ethos is “the idea that architecture is a common good.”

“The best Dutch housing is the collective product of, in no particular order, developers, clients, architects, contractors, and municipalities, which usually appear to agree on the idea that every project is the shared responsibility of all parties, with the final product more important than the interest of any individual party,” Ibelings writes. “This is often reflected in the implicit and sometimes even explicit acknowledgment that making money isn’t the first and foremost reason to build. Robinson offers a striking example in one of her case studies, quoting the developer who matter-of-factly mentions a significant financial loss in the same sentence he calls the project as a huge success.”

That any American developer would or could lose money on a project is as irreconcilable for Americans as is the Dutch government’s fundamental assumption that all citizens have a right to be housed. A fundamental right. It’s the law. More astounding is that all “housing is seen as integral with settlement design, and that the wise design of settlements is a government responsibility.” Thus, Dutch artists and other low-income residents are able to purchase or rent affordable, innovative, sustainable spaces. Correspondingly, architects are empowered to ply advanced design as part of a collective that includes residents, developers, bankers and government official who make this all possible.

In essence, the Dutch in their infinite wisdom have created an ultimate virtuous cycle where design professionals are highly valued.

However, in a modest office just a level down from where this symposium took place sits the University’s Minnesota Design Center director, Tom Fisher, the former dean of the School of Architecture. If it’s up to Fisher, Minnesota design professionals, in the parlance of gaming, will “see” the Dutch model and “raise it.”

Tom Fisher, director of the University of Minnesota's Minnesota Design Center. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Tom Fisher, director of the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Design Center. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The work of the Center is forging new and critical ground in the high stakes world of 21st century fields like education, public infrastructure, public health, politics and economics, to name a few, where “design thinking” helps solve the world’s complicated problems.

Though design professionals are most known for designing visible objects, like the urban design, landscape or buildings discussed during this month’s symposium, or typeface or clothing, Fisher is out to prove that they are well suited to helping solve large, complex, invisible problems, and his latest book, “Designing Our Way to a Better World” from University of Minnesota Press, helps us see why.

“We tend to think of design in terms of the visible world around us: the buildings we occupy and the products we use,” Fisher writes. “But the ‘invisible’ systems that we depend on in our daily lives — the infrastructure buried beneath our feet or in our walls, the educational and health systems that we all experience as we age or become ill, and the economic and political systems that affect us in myriad ways over time — remain just as much designed as anything that we inhabit or use.”

Not many ordinary Minnesotans understand the heft and impact of the Minnesota Design Center he leads. Nor is the story of how the School of Architecture morphed into the College of Design much known outside the field. Yet Fisher’s and the University’s leadership add essential gravitas to Minnesota’s role in this critical and cutting-edge field.

The College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture merged with the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel to become the College of Design in 2006. Fisher explains, “By having all of the design disciplines in one college, we have been able to develop new interdisciplinary programs, like product design or human factors. This new college has also positioned us well to participate in the growing interest in design thinking, which is the topic of my recent book. The redesign of the systems that are not working well — our educational system, our political system, our economy, our infrastructure, etc. — may be one of the most important tasks before us, and it is something to which our Center and our College has to contribute.”

The Minnesota Design Center is the same entity that luminaries Bill Morrish and Catherine Brown led under the original name, the Design Center for American Urban Landscape, for over 20 years ago as its first directors.

“We changed the original name because it seemed too long and too hard for many people to remember. I am the fourth director of the center,” Fisher clarifies.

The resulting Center, supported by a generous endowments by foundations like Target and McKnight, tackles complex issues, replicating and surpassing the complexity represented by the Dutch housing models.

According to Fisher, we live in “a period of unprecedented urbanization, with record numbers of people moving into cities, and a period in which we face profound economic, environmental, technological, and social changes.”

In response, the design community is undergoing a transition from strictly defining itself in terms of outcomes — architects producing buildings, industrial designers products, etc. — to more broadly defining itself in terms of the knowledge, processes and methods used to do such work, which has applications far beyond its traditional outcomes.

Under Fisher’s leadership, “the Center provides a platform and a place where a diverse group of people can work on projects related to these issues, helping communities and organizations recognize and respond constructively to the opportunities that we face in Minnesota as well as nationally.”

For example, the Center has worked with Allina Health to teach design thinking skills to the leadership of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta so that that organization can respond more creatively and flexibly to global health challenges, and with four Minnesota counties (Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka and Dakota) to reimagine the adult foster care housing system to give residents greater choice.

With such efforts percolating in our own backyard, members of our design profession are contributing as great or greater societal impact as the admirable Dutch model.

We Minnesotans have much to be proud of as our creative class contributions spiral up and beyond the traditional metrics that the Creative Vitality Index measures.

Professor Julia W. Robinson listens as architect Matt Finn from Cermak Rhoads explains Catholic Charities Higher Ground homeless shelter to Dutch participants. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Professor Julia W. Robinson listens as architect Matt Finn from Cermak Rhoads explains Catholic Charities Higher Ground homeless shelter to Dutch participants. Photo by Susan Schaefer

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