Image, Style, Design | What's With the New? - Design Bureau

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Image, Style, Design | What’s With the New?

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

By Steven Fischer
Illustration by Ashley Kuhn

Recently, I was perusing the 1969 first edition of Ira Bach’s classic tour book, Chicago on Foot, and found that many of the architectural gems listed as “must sees” are no longer. Among the lost greats: the original Chicago Stock Exchange building, designed by “the father of skyscrapers” Louis Sullivan; and the iconic Chicago Sun-Times newspaper building.

This tear-down mentality isn’t just affecting classic Chicago buildings. It’s an epidemic that has swept through many old neighborhoods and suburbs throughout the country. In many cases, a beautiful, perfectly functional house built in the late 1800s is torn down for new construction, or what many people have derisively referred to as a “McMansion.” This newer, bigger, better mentality has swept the nation, from my friend Stuart posting on Facebook about his kitchen transformation project to entire TV channels, including HGTV and DIY Network, celebrating the changes that homeowners can perform on their homes, and thus the revolutionary impact it has on their lives.

What is behind this need and desire to have our homes and buildings be new?

Most homes being torn down are actually still beautiful and in good shape. In many cases, the architecture found in these “tear-downs” define the neighborhood’s style. The sheltering function of these seemingly out-of-date homes still works, so why redesign and remodel? Surprisingly, the answer can be found in fashion.

Fashion? Think about it: As consumers living in an image-conscious world, we distinguish ourselves based on the clothing we wear. Changing our wardrobe shows we are current with the times and it satisfies our need for novelty and newness. That novelty and newness also meets our brain’s need for constant stimulation. The same social function that is experienced through a new wardrobe is also gained through a new living environment. But this “new” phenomenon isn’t, well, new. The need to rebuild our home environments is age-old. Take the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan, a central shrine for the Shinto religion. Historians believe it was established in the 4th century B.C., but it has been rebuilt every 20 years since. It’s a part of the Shinto belief of wabi-sabi, the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things. Although the shrine is rebuilt as an exact replica of the original each time, it reflects the human need for constant renewal.

And this need for new is not going anywhere anytime soon; it’s part of being human. Now the challenge ahead with ever-renewal of the home is to make a change that is long(er) term and ecologically sustainable.


Steven Fischer is Director of Image, Style & Design Studio and a Lecturer at Northwestern University

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