Thursday, July 11, 2013

Cognitive Bargain

"A well-designed object or experience is a cognitive bargain with unusually high return-on-use." These words of John Maeda resonate with me, perhaps because I've been thinking about design most of my life. As luck would have it, or maybe because I'm aware of design, I feel like I've spent most of my time immersed in a world of designed things. As a botanist and gardener I'm shoulder-high in the wonders of plant form. As a cook I get to handle kitchen implements, throw pots around, and make seltzer from my wonderful "sodastream"--a cognitive bargain if ever there was one (thank you Ben and Molly!).

Somehow the built environment, the urban landscape, the local "lay-of-the-land" are always high on my radar, I guess because I'm always out there on my bike. In my neighborhood there's one place I keep going back to, the magnificent Northpoint development in East Cambridge. More important than the buildings, the position of Northpoint is its strongest asset. Steps away from the scruffy Lechemere T stop, on top of the great dynamic waterways of Boston, and spitting distance from the roar of bridges and highway, Northpoint sits like a gem in the setting of the city. 

Its planners tried, and to an extent succeeded, in bringing nature into this place, high berms with lawn and birch trees, weedy sun drenched prairies, and stretches of wetland, looking less artificial as the months and years pass. The other day I was over at Northpoint on a quiet hot morning and for the first time I saw the culverts they devised as part of the wetlands. Normally I suppose you wouldn't notice them. But these days, because I'm so busy writing grant proposals to get me back to Sri Lanka, where I want to study their ancient engineered irrigation systems, the culverts stood out. 

Nothing that super special about them I guess, but the designers dressed them with heavy stones, gave each one a bit of personality, and imbued the site with just that certain touch of design gravitas. Incidentally the culverts resemble the ancient massive stone anicuts, invented by the Sri Lankans about 1500 years before Europeans learned to make them. A long-lasting cognitive/ecological "bargain" that well befits John's description of good design. 

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