Rights and Rites

Jennifer Sigler

Featured in:

44: Seventeen

Editors’ Letter

Youth will win overwhelmingly
For truth
Is eternally regenerative
In youth.
Youth’s love
Embracingly integrates,
Successfully frustrates
And holds together,
Often unwittingly,
All that hate, fear, and selfishness
Attempt to disintegrate.
— Buckminster Fuller

It’s 2017. The millennium is in its teenage years—and it shows.

The world is acting out—making rash, impulsive decisions whose repercussions may be irreparable. The body politic is moody, volatile, and uncompromising. We were born into Y2K and 9/11; our youth is part of a string of crises and rapid evolutions. Can the physical landscape weather our collective turmoil? Adolescence may be “just a phase,” but architecture, infrastructure, and policy are hard to undo.

What does it mean to be 17 in 2017? This issue of Harvard Design Magazine checks in with teens of all sorts—humans, buildings, objects, ideas—and their impact on the spatial imagination. Like a bildungsroman for the built environment, “Seventeen” dives into the treacherous, exhilarating limbo of the teen years to understand the 2017 moment as a live wire between past and future. Can we design our way through this global adolescence?

Though stereotyped as indignant or apathetic—conflicted in their longings and apprehensions—teenagers are also wildly optimistic, passionate, creative, and resourceful. Legally, 17 is a sweet spot—the closing act of childhood, where juvenile status gives way to many adult privileges and punishments.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Artificial Intelligence, 1984–1986.

But teenagehood is not just a physical and emotional transition; it is also a spatial one. Teens have always developed techniques for placemaking—both creative and destructive—within landscapes they can’t control.

Bursting out of their childhood homes, teens crave autonomy—so they roam the streets, escape to virtual worlds, or hide out in bedrooms; they claim vacant lots, parks, and garages as turf; and they cruise, chill, or hang—euphemisms for the “whatever” that may or may not occur in these marginal spaces. For a discipline that defines space according to program and purpose, the nebulous teen hangout is easily overlooked; but openness, placelessness, and aimlessness offer a realm for fantasy, common ground, and action—especially in times of challenged freedoms.

Teenagers are not “just kids”—their needs and desires hugely impact our economy, and they will inherit the natural and built environment we leave behind. As a deep collective political crisis unfolds, we are all questioning and reigniting our agency as citizens, and as designers. Teens, perhaps more than anyone, know how to resist, to persevere, to make new rules—to reinvent themselves, their communities, and the world they want to live in.

Like all teenagers, we are asking: who are we, where do we fit in, and how can we, too, make our marks—as impactful designers and as an evolving discipline? In a divided, temperamental 2017, there is much to learn from the teenager.