Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Throw-away Lab

A couple of hours' chat with the development director at my old elementary school set my wheels spinning. It may have been the coffee and the flashbacks. We were discussing plans to establish  what she called a maker center, a space where kids can construct projects of their own devising. 

Pomme's chief of design, Sir Jonathan Ive, is the son of an English silversmith. Each year Ive's birthday gift was a day in his father's shop constructing the project of his choice with experienced assistance. Before starting work, he had to present detailed drawings. I hope the school can assemble a corps of mentors.

If I utter the word design in the presence of someone who makes his living at it, he tends to grind his teeth and say polite things, just as an interior designer does. The world is crawling with amateurs, though, and every dollar one spends is a vote for something.

About twenty years ago, a broadcast story about a legendary building at MIT caught my ear and eye. It's number 225 or something, a surplus frame unit left over from World War Two. The space is famous for the disruptive innovation it has generated, because people working on projects feel free, say, to cut holes in the floor to accommodate oversized pieces of experimental gear. Steve Jobs studied the history of the book in just such a building and went on to innovate circles around Gutenberg.

The school is looking for millions of dollars for the project. I hope I can appreciate the social and economic realities behind the goal. Me, I'd buy one of the houses across the street, strip it out, lay sacrificial flooring, wire it waist-high to a fare-thee-well, ensure child safety, and fill the thing with the hottest toys around. I'd put in an overhead grid of cheap, movable lighting units. Technology changes so fast that a formal facility will be a fossil before the paint dries. If an existing building will not do, my first instinct would be to put up a large sheet-metal garage/workshop unit or portable classroom, landscape it into invisibility, lash on solar and water salvage for the nearby restrooms, and get the kids to "work" as soon as possible.

My ambition would be to impress prospective parents with the good sense of the school's spending priorities and to keep the neighbors happy about the facility. It might not hurt to have a wall of big photographs or a web site with a tour of working studios so that white collar parents can get a look at the business end of the culture.

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